For every new technology that makes it onto the battlefield, thousands of others have been tested or are in the process of development. Many of these strange but true projects originated with the federal agency known as DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Although most Americans have never heard of the agency, DARPA was established in 1958 as a response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. One of DARPA’s earliest creations, a computer network known as ARPANET, set the foundation for the Internet in use today and demonstrated once again that technology developed for the military can find civilian uses. No one can say just what future consumer marvels will originate through DARPA, but here are 10 unique technologies currently being developed by this special agency.
10. Hypersonic Aircraft
One of DARPA’s most high-profile projects is the development of a hypersonic aircraft. Such an aircraft-spacecraft hybrid would be capable of crossing the U.S. from coast to coast in less than 12 minutes at speeds over 13,000 mph and give the military the flexibility to quickly strike targets worldwide from U.S. soil. There have been two test flights of the Falcon HTV-2, in 2010 and 2011. In the first test, ground control lost contact with the aircraft after nine minutes of flight. The second flight, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in August 2011, reached Mach 20 but auto-terminated and crashed into the Pacific Ocean after researchers lost control 20 minutes into the flight. Work continues on the project.
9. Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System
Being able to discern a threat and gather information at a great distance gives soldiers an edge in combat. DARPA is trying to integrate information gathered via optical and digital means and feed it to those that need it in real time. This can include satellite or airborne imagery and acoustic imagery that allow the war fighter to “see” through walls or around obstacles. One could easily see this technology making its way into the future of virtual environments as anticipated by such things as Google Goggles.
8. Blood Pharming
Getting a dedicated fresh supply of blood available for transfusion to the battlefield has long been a dilemma. A DARPA initiative is striving to give medics the ability to create a fresh supply of blood in the field via an experimental process known as blood pharming. This would involve using an automated culture to synthesize universal red blood cells starting with progenitor cell sources. This would solve the problems of storage, contamination, and transportation in existing systems. And, of course, this would also find an application in civilian emergency rooms, laboratories or medical treatment in remote locations.
7. Advanced Sighting System (One-Shot)
Snipers often have to make the “kill” in one carefully planned shot, at distances up to a kilometer away. The One Shot system being developed by DARPA seeks to analyze all of the variables such as temperature, crosswinds, and even the shooter’s own reflexes to gauge and increase the ability to succeed at a one-shot hit. Prototypes that will mount on existing scopes are expected to be field tested in mid-2012.
6. The Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals
Production, storage and distribution of vaccines pose potential national security weaknesses that DARPA is working to address. For example, vaccines are reproduced in chicken eggs, which are vulnerable to pathogens; even the classified farms that these eggs are harvested from are a potential target. DARPA’s goal is to initially demonstrate the ability to produce 1,000 doses in a 12-week period, scalable up to 1 million bulk doses to counter a biological threat. Use of such monoclonal and recombinant protein therapies would see vaccines getting to the point of need immediately in the event of an epidemic.
5. Instant Fire Suppression
DARPA is targeting the problem of fighting fires in small confined spaces, such as inside a vehicle or aircraft. Where traditional flame-retardant systems seek to chemically disrupt or starve the fire, the instant fire suppression goes past the chemistry of combustion and seeks to disrupt fire by use of acoustics, electromagnetic fields, or ion destabilization. Such unique approaches get at the physics of fire, and may lead to innovative new commercial fire suppression systems that are less hazardous to equipment, the environment and human health.
In many cases, nature has already found a solution via millions of years of evolution that can be incorporated into modern technology. One of the more curious projects underway at DARPA is known as Z-Man, which seeks to replicate the climbing skills of insects and lizards in a human climbing aid. For example, geckos rely on adhesion via something known as the van der Waals force, which operates at the molecular level via millions of tiny pads on its feet. The goal of Z-Man is to develop a system that will allow a solider to scale a wall with a full combat load without use of a rope or traditional methods.
3. Advanced Prosthetics
While medical breakthroughs have saved countless lives in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, they also generated record percentages of wounded-in-action soldiers, many of whom survived injuries that would have been fatal in previous wars. As prosthetics technology evolves, DARPA seeks to build on its own previous breakthroughs in full neural interfacing to build future prosthetics that can be controlled directly by the brain. Such technology will improve the quality of life of those disabled by neural degenerative disorders, spinal injury, trauma, and stroke.
2. The Space Surveillance Telescope
As low Earth orbit becomes more cluttered with debris, a key future dilemma will be the tracking and cataloging of hazardous projectiles that pose a threat to space-based assets. DARPA’s Space Surveillance Telescope program begun in 2002 and currently in the demonstration phase seeks to track debris via use of wide-field, fast focal length optics. Not only will the SST be a boon to tracking objects in low-Earth orbit, it is coming online just in time. Events such as the Chinese anti-satellite missile test in 2007 and the 2009 collision of the satellites Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 have showered low-Earth orbit with additional debris, and experts warn that an “ablation cascade” may not be far off. In other words, it may just be a matter of time before satellites and spacecraft start crashing into debris, with each collision creating more and larger chunks of debris, until low-Earth orbit becomes almost impassable. The lives of astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station also depend on the Space Surveillance network, and it will also have the benefit of discovering asteroids on a potential collision course with Earth.
1. Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts
Human and computer intelligences are adept at analyzing data in different ways. DARPA hopes to combine these strengths and weaknesses in terms of imagery analysis to process, filter and select key information for later view. To this end, researchers seek to apply the technique of combining broad area, video and static imagery via user interface to capitalize on the areas of image interpretation in which either computers or human users excel. The spinoff technology for this may have huge implications in a world similar to that depicted in the film Minority Report … will we even need a keyboard interface on computers of the future?