DARPA & DARPA Developed Technologies
Although a number of agencies conduct or are involved in defense research related initiatives, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) acts as the central research and development arm of the Department of Defense (DOD). In this capacity, DARPA manages and directs selected basic and applied defense research and development projects where both risks and potential rewards are high and where future success may lead to revolutionary defense technology breakthroughs. Moreover, almost all of these defense research projects are long term efforts with those that come to fruition often not being used by the military until many years after the initial development was started.
Hence, since its formation in 1958 in response to the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik, DARPA has been responsible for funding numerous technologies or underlying technologies that have significantly advanced US military capabilities. These technologies include night vision, Saturn Five Rocket surveillance satellites, guided munitions, stealth technology, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and body armor. Moreover, some DARPA developed technologies, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) and ARPANET (the predecessor of the Internet), have moved beyond military use to impact the world as a whole.
To achieve such breakthroughs, DARPA has long operated more like an investment firm with its small, flexible, and flat organizational structure and a core team of technologically outstanding and entrepreneurial program managers. Furthermore, DARPA is independent of the defense research and development establishment - falling under the jurisdiction of the of the Director for Defense Research and Engineering.
DARPA Strategic Thrusts
Currently, DARPA is structured into five program offices handling a portfolio of research and development initiatives and strategic thrusts:
The Defense Sciences Office (DSO) is the most scientifically diverse DARPA office with no limits on the range of scientific and engineering ideas it pursues. Key strategic thrusts include the Physical Sciences, Materials, Mathematics, Training and Human Effectiveness, Biological Warfare Defense, and Biology.
The mission of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) is to develop and bring the most advance information technology capabilities to the war fighter. Key strategic thrusts include Cognitive Systems, Command & Control, High Productivity Computing, Language Processing, Sensors & Processing, and Emerging Technologies.
The Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) leads pioneering research into Integrated Microelectronics in order to revolutionize the performance and functionality of future DOD systems. Key strategic thrusts include Electronics, Photonics, Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMs), Architectures, and Algorithms.
The Strategic Technology Office (STO) was formed in 2006 by a merger of the Special Projects Office (SPO) and Advanced Technology Office (ATO). Key strategic thrusts include Space Systems, Satellites, and Near Space Sensors; Strategic & Tactical Networks; Information Assurance; Underground Facility Detection & Characterization; Chemical, Biological and Radiological Defense; Maritime Operations; and Small Unit Operations.
The Tactical Technology Office (TTO) develops advanced defense systems with a particular focus on the development of Aerospace Systems and Tactical Multipliers. Key strategic thrusts include Directed Energy Systems, Precision Strike, Space Operations, Unmanned Systems, and Air/Space/Land/Sea Platforms.
Selected DARPA Research Initiatives
Some active or recently active DARPA funded research projects or initiatives worth noting include the following:
Developed by the TTO and defense contractor BBN Technologies Corp., the Boomerang is an acoustic gun shot detection system designed to be used on mobile combat vehicles such as the Humvee. Its development grew out of a program begun in late 2003 as US troops in Iraq began to be confronted by a growing insurgency and experienced difficulty in determining where gunshots targeting Humvees were coming from until after someone was hit. In 65 days, DARPA developed a prototype that will detect a bullet’s muzzle blast and supersonic shockwave and then indicate on computer a shooter's range, elevation, and azimuth. In July of 2008, BBN was awarded a US$73.8 million contract for 8,131 Boomerang systems, spare systems, and training services.
Managed by the TTO, the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) program aims to develop a high-energy laser weapon system that will be capable of shooting down tactical targets such as surface-to-air missiles. The HELLADS system is being designed so that it can be integrated onto tactical aircraft; and thus, significantly increasing engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems. Although still largely in the design and demonstration phase, defense contractor General Atomics will build the HELLADs while Lockheed-Martin will design the tracking system.
Developed by the DSO, the Wasp micro air vehicle is a half-pound UAV with a 14-inch wingspan designed for front-line reconnaissance and surveillance over land or sea. The Wasp is capable of staying aloft for one hour at 35 miles per hour and shares a common ground control station with the Raven, Pointer, and Puma UAVs. Currently, the Wasp family of UAVs include a number of variants now used by the Air Force and Marines.
Managed by the STO, the Very High Efficiency Solar Cell (VHESC) program seeks to develop affordable portable solar cell battery chargers with a solar cell efficiency of 50% from sunlight at standard weather conditions. Such a breakthrough will dramatically both reduce the battery logistics pipeline and reduce the amount of battery weight (nearly 20 pounds on average for a three day supply) carried by individual soldiers to power common battlefield devices. DARPA has already begun the next phase of the program by creating the DuPont-University of Delaware VHESC Consortium to transition lab work into a prototype model with the goal of production by 2010.
Managed by the STO, the WolfPack program seeks to develop technologies to prevent enemy use of communication and radar equipment on the battlefield via ground based monitors and jammers that are linked to avoid disruption of non-enemy communication systems. Currently, DARPA and the Army are developing long-term plans for WolfPack deployment via airborne and deep launch devices. In addition, DARPA is working with the Air Force to develop an enemy air defense suppression strategy and is discussing plans with the Navy for force protection missions.
The above examples represent just a fraction of the diverse range of defense research related initiatives undertaken or being undertaken by DARPA that will not only improve the capabilities of US fighting forces but may also lead to breakthrough technologies for wider non-military uses.
by John Udovich for Defense Ventures