Inside the bad-ass world of military research projects

DARPA's projects run the gamut from building extremely fast, secure networks, and developing higher, longer flying unmanned aircraft to bio-related advances

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When it comes to building the most advanced, bad-ass technologies around there are few science enclaves that can match the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  Last week the outfit detailed nine top strategic research programs in a 57-page report.  The report states the programs will lead to revolutionary, radical high-payoff (and many times high-cost) technology advances.  

Indeed DARPA's projects run the gamut from building extremely fast, secure networks, and developing higher, longer flying unmanned aircraft to bio-related advances that help bring vaccines to a useful state faster and space technologies that offer modular satellite systems.

If you want to get a general idea of the scope of DARPA's programs, here is a short list of research projects on the table. Most of which are spelled out with more detail later:

-Accelerated Development and Production of Therapeutics: rapidly and inexpensively manufacture millions of doses of life saving drugs or vaccines in weeks, instead of the years required to ramp up today's manufacturing practices.

-Blue Laser for Submarine Laser Communications: provide for timely, large area submarine communications at speed and depth, which no other future or existing system, or combinations of systems, can do.

-High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System: novel, compact, high power lasers making practical small-size and low-weight speed-of-light weapons for tactical mobile air- and ground-vehicles.

-High Productivity Computing Systems: supercomputers are fundamental to a variety of military operations, from weather forecasting to cryptography to the design of new weapons; DARPA is working to maintain our global lead in this technology.

-Networks: self-forming, robust, self-defending networks at the strategic and tactical level are the key to network-centric warfare; these networks will use spectrum far more efficiently and resist disruption if the GPS time signal is unavailable.

-Quantum Information Science: exploiting quantum phenomena in the fields of computing, cryptography, and communications, with the promise of opening new frontiers in each area.

-Real-Time Accurate Language Translation: real-time machine language translation of structured and unstructured text and speech with near-expert human translation accuracy.

The nine strategic programs feature a multitude of technologies as you might guess. Here I have tried to distill some of the most advanced here from DARPA's Strategic Plan 2009 report, including:

Ground control to Major Tom: Space is where it's at

As you may know, DARPA began as a space agency, when the shock of Sputnik caused Americans to believe the Soviet Union had seized "the ultimate high ground." DARPA's space strategy includes a number of ambitious projects including: 

The Falcon program has been working to build a jet that can hit the Mach  6+ range.  A major goal of the program is to flight-test key hypersonic cruise vehicle technologies in a realistic flight environment. Recently DARPA conducted both low- and high-speed wind tunnel tests that validate the stability and control of the hypersonic technology. Test flights are planned from Vandenberg Air Force Base to Kwajalein Atoll to test thermal and aerodynamic control systems. One flight will follow a fairly direct trajectory, while the second "buttonhook" trajectory will demonstrate significant cross-range maneuver capability.

DARPA's System F6 program takes a dramatically new approach towards designing, building, launching, and operating larger spacecraft. The F6 or Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange also known as the System F6, is intended to let the agency deploy individual pieces or what it calls "fractionated modules" of current all-in-one satellites. For example, each fractionated module would support a unique capability, such as command and control, data handling, guidance and navigation, payload. Modules could replicate the functions of other modules as well. Such modules can be physically connected once in orbit or remain nearby to each other in a loose formation, or cluster, harnessed together through a wireless network they create a virtual satellite.

According to DARPA such a virtual satellite effectively constitutes a "bus in the sky" - wherein customers need only provide and deploy a payload module suited to their immediate mission need, with the supporting features supplied by a global network of infrastructure modules already resident on-orbit and at critical ground locations. In addition, there can be sharing of resources between various "spacecraft" that are within sufficient range for communication. DARPA said the within the F6 network all subsystems and payloads can be treated like a uniquely addressable computing peripheral or network device.

Meanwhile, the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) program will enhance space situational awareness by demonstrating rapid, unsecured search, detection, and tracking of faint, deep-space objects. SST is using curved focal plane array technology to develop a large-aperture optical telescope with very wide field of view to detect and track new and unidentified objects that suddenly appear with unknown purpose or intent, such as small, potentially hazardous debris objects and future generations of small satellites.

DARPA's ISIS program recently got the go ahead to build a roughly 1/3-scale model of a stratospheric airship that if completed in-scale will basically house a floating 15-story radar system capable of detecting and tracking everything from small cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to soldiers and  small vehicles under foliage up to 300 kilometers away.

The move to unmanned warfare

Without a doubt unmanned aircraft have already had a huge impact on military and civilian flying worlds. DARPA says its efforts have been focused in two areas: First, to improve individual platforms so that they provide new or improved capabilities, such as unprecedented endurance or survivability. Second, expand the level of autonomy and robustness of robotic systems.

Some of the more advanced unmanned aircraft projects include:

-The A160 program is developing an unmanned helicopter for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, with long endurance - up to 20 hours - and the ability to hover at high altitudes. In 2008, the A160 set a world record for UAV endurance when it completed an 18.7 hour endurance flight. The A160 concept is being evaluated for surveillance and targeting, communications and data relay, crew recovery, resupply of forces in the field, and special operations missions in support of Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and other needs.

-Vulture will develop an aircraft capable of remaining on-station for over five years, pushing technology and design so that the system may not require refueling or maintenance. A single Vulture aircraft could support traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance functions over country-sized areas, while also providing geostationary satellite-class communication capabilities but at a fraction of the cost.

-Rapid Eye program is creating the capability to deliver a persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance asset anywhere worldwide within one to two hours. The program will develop a high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft that can be put on existing space launch systems, withstand atmosphere re-entry, and provide efficient propulsion in a low-oxygen environment at low speed.

Just as air vehicles have moved toward both increased mission complexity and increased environmental complexity, DARPA is also trying to increase both the mission and environmental complexity for autonomous ground vehicles. This will help meet the Congressional goal that, by 2015, one third of US operational ground combat vehicles will be unmanned.

The Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle - Perception for Off-Road Robotics (PerceptOR) - Integration (UPI) program demonstrated an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) capability. DARPA has begun to transition this technology to the Army, and provided a prototype ground vehicle with PerceptOR vehicle control algorithms and software to the Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center to use in developing a UGV control architecture, and conducting vehicle design and control risk mitigation activities for Future Combat Systems vehicle.

Getting more power in the face of the enemy

By using improved information technology, DARPA intends to reduce the layers and amount of infrastructure needed to operate the computers, software applications, and networks that support the front-line fighting forces, letting military personnel conduct new kinds of missions in new ways.

The fundamental goal is to get a larger proportion of forces into the fight.

With that in mind, DARPA said it as embarked on an ambitious mission to create a new generation of computing systems - cognitive computers - to dramatically reduce military manpower and extend the capabilities of military personnel. DARPA's cognitive computing research is developing technologies that will enable computer systems to learn, reason and apply knowledge gained through experience, and respond intelligently to new and unforeseen events.

The Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL) program has been developing integrated cognitive systems to act as personalized executive-style assistants to military commanders and decision-makers. PAL is creating a new generation of machine learning technology so information systems automatically adjust to new environments and new users, help commanders maintain the battle rhythm and adapt to new enemy tactics, evolving situations and priorities, and accelerate the incorporation of new personnel into command operations, while making more effective use of resources.

DARPA's Integrated Learning program has demonstrated software that an learn these planning tasks by watching examples.

Once the system learns a planning task, it can then support other operators who are perhaps less expert by guiding them through the task. This software will eventually make it practical to create many sophisticated decision support systems that will make operators faster and more effective.

Improved real-time translation of foreign languages at both the strategic and tactical levels is another important way computers can assist the military and civilians. Real-time language translation technology will help US forces better understand adversaries and overall social and political contexts of the operational areas. This improved awareness will decrease costly mistakes due to misunderstandings, and also improve the chances of success.

The goal of the Global Autonomous Language Exploitation (GALE) program is to translate and distill foreign language material (television shows and newspapers) in near real-time, highlight the salient information, and store the results in a searchable database. Through this process, GALE would be able to produce high-quality answers to the types of questions that are normally pro-vided by bi-lingual intelligence analysts.

GALE is making progress toward achieving this very ambitious goal by 2011.  The agency is developing the System for Tactical Use program, a two-way speech translation system to convert spoken foreign language input to English output and vice versa.

The networks have it

DARPA is developing technologies for wireless tactical net-centric warfare that will enable reliable, mobile, secure, self-forming, ad hoc networking among the various echelons while using available spectrum very efficiently.

For starters, DARPA said frequency spectrum is scarce and valuable. Most of the radio frequency spectrum is already allocated to users who may or may not be using it at a given time and place. DARPA's neXt Generation (XG) Communications technology will effectively make up to ten times more spectrum available by taking advantage of spectrum that has been assigned but is not being used at a particular point in time. XG technology senses the actual spectrum being used and then dynamically uses the spectrum that is not busy at that particular place and time. XG resists jamming and does not interfere with other users.

DARPA also has been developing autonomous network communications for the cluttered environment of cities. Urban clutter usually creates multiple signals from diverse reflections of the initial signal (multi-path), and the result is weak and/or fading voice/data communications. DARPA's the Mobile Networked Multiple-Input/Multiple-Output (MNM) program is actually exploiting multipath phenomena to improve communications between vehicles moving in cities without using a fixed communications infrastructure.

Besides tactical networking, DARPA is bridging strategic and tactical operations with high-speed, high-capacity communications networks. The Department's strategic, high-speed fiber optic network, called the Global Information Grid (GIG), has an integrated network whose data rate is hundreds to thousands of megabits per second. To reach the battlefield deployed elements, data on the GIG must be converted into a wireless format for reliable transmission to the various elements and echelons within the theater. This data rate mismatch creates problems in the timely delivery of information to military personnel.

In response to this challenge, DARPA has been working on robust network management to combine the high data-rate capability of laser communications with the high reliability of radio frequency communications and obtain the benefits of both.

DARPA's Optical RF7 Communications Adjunct (ORCA) program will design, build, and demonstrate a prototype tactical network connecting ground-based and airborne elements. ORCA's goal is to create a high data rate backbone network, via several airborne assets that nominally fly at 25,000 feet and up to 200 kilometers apart, which provides GIG services to ground elements up 50 kilometers away from any one node.

Networks rely on a widely available timing signal, or common clock, to sequence the movement of voice and data traffic and to enable encryption. The timing signal is often provided by the Global Positioning System (GPS) or broadcast via other radio signals. We should expect adversaries to attack our networks by blocking these timing signals.

DARPA has been developing a miniature atomic clock - measuring approximately one cubic centimeter - to supply the timing signal should the external signal be lost. The Chip-Scale Atomic Clock will let a network node, using a Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, maintain synchronous operation with the network for several days after loss of the GPS signal.

Urban area warfare

To provide a response to the challenges of battles in hard-to-reach areas, DARPA said it is assembling sensors, exploitation tools, and battle management systems to rapidly find, track, and destroy irregular forces that operate there. This includes small-units operating in mountains, forests, and swamps; ground troops that abandon open country for cities; and insurgents whose whole organization - finance, logistics, weapon fabrication, attack - is embedded in civilian activities. DARPA is even looking out to sea to counter the piracy threat.

For example, changes detected between images generated by DARPA's foliage-penetrating radar can be used to engage elusive targets. The  FORESTER radar operates at frequencies that penetrate the forest canopy. Algorithms, running either on an aircraft or by the network at a ground station, compare images taken at different times to detect changes that signify either departures or arrivals. Because radars operate in all weather and at long ranges, this technique can discover the location of potential targets over very wide areas.

DARPA is also networking radars together. DARPA's NetTrack program uses airborne radars to gather features of moving vehicles and pass that information over a network to maintain tracking information over extended periods. This network of radars will allow us to track the enemy even if they move behind obstructions or into urban canyons.

To identify targets in response to these cues, DARPA has developed laser radar, or ladar sensors that can obtain exquisitely detailed, 3-D imagery.

Those photons that pass through gaps between leaves for example, however few, can be collated together into a composite image. New computational methods can match these data against 3-D geometric models of a variety of target types, even identifying gun barrels, rocket launchers, and other equipment that unambiguously indicate the military nature of the vehicle.

DARPA has several programs to vastly improve capabilities to understand what is going on throughout a complex urban environment, including the ability to detect adversaries hiding in buildings and other structures, and to find hidden explosives or weapons of mass destruction.

DARPA's UrbanScape system will rapidly create a three-dimensional model of an urban area that allows the user to navigate and move around in a computer environment much like a video game, but one based on real data. This will allows troops to become very familiar with the urban terrain before beginning a mission.

A helmet-mounted visor is being developed that displays a fused image created from several other helmet-mounted sensors - even when it's too dark for night vision goggles, or when peering through smoke and fog. And DARPA developed a hand-held radar that senses people on the other side of walls to detect potential enemies before military personnel enter a room or building.

Another program, DARPA's Predictive Analysis for Naval Deployment Activities (PANDA) program is developing technology that exploits surface maritime vessel tracks to automatically learn the normal behavior of over 100,000 vessels, and then detect deviations. PANDA will automatically provide alerts on those vessels exhibiting suspicious activity, including activities that have not been previously seen or defined.

Tagging, tracking and locating capabilities

DARPA has been developing new capabilities to persistently monitor targets or equipment of interest; tag, track and locate enemy activities; track and detect weapons fabrication and movement; and precisely discriminate threat from non-threat entities.

Protecting the military from attacks is an ever-present challenge - especially in the close-quarters and congestion of cities. DARPA is developing technologies to detect, prevent, or mitigate attacks, including suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, and weapons of mass destruction.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) remain a significant threat to our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. DARPA's Hardwire program has developed an entirely new class of armor that weighs less than comparable steel armor and has demonstrated outstanding protection against armor piercing rounds, fragments, and IEDs.

Small arms fire poses a constant threat, particularly in urban terrain. DARPA's low-cost Boomerang shooter detection and location system provides a protection tool that warns ground forces when they are being fired upon and where the fire is coming from.  Building on the success of Boomerang, DARPA is developing a detection and warning system for ground forces under the Crosshairs program, which incorporates the Boomerang system as well as an advanced radar capable of detecting a broad range of threats including small arms, rockets, missiles, and mortars.

DARPA programs are also modeling and understanding social indicators that precede the onset of hostilities and conflict, coupled with tools to develop strategies to stabilize an urban area and assist US civil affairs units.

Meanwhile DARPA's LANDROID system which creates small robots that are also communications relay nodes to establish and manage communication networks. Military folks will carry several of these pocket-sized LANdroids, dropping them as they deploy. The LANDroids will talk to one another and spread out to establish a mesh communications network over the region. When the fighters move, the LANdroids and the network will move with them to maintain robust, self-healing communications.


Developing defenses against biological attack poses daunting problems. Strategies using today's technologies to counter future biological threats are seriously limited.

First, it is nearly impossible to predict what threats might emerge in two decades, particularly engineered threats. Second, from the moment a new pathogen is first identified - either a weapons agent or a naturally emerging pathogen - today's technology requires at least 15 years to discover, develop, and manufacture large quantities of an effective therapy.

It would be exorbitantly costly to attempt to cover the bases with the research and development required to deal with a wide range of potential threats, and then stockpile, maintain, and indefinitely renew population-significant quantities of vaccines or other therapeutics just in case one or more of those threats might emerge., DARPA stated.

DARPA has developed approaches to dramatically increase the effectiveness of vaccines. One agent, CpG, has been shown to reduce the dose required to achieve immunity and the number of "booster shots" required to maintain immunity. With CpG, DARPA demonstrated a nearly nine-fold improvement in response to the anthrax vaccine, and significantly shortened the time until military personnel are fully protected. CpG has transitioned widely and is in advanced clinical trials for influenza and biodefense vaccines.

DARPA's work to discover new therapies include our Protein Design Process program, with the goal to demonstrate a computer-based system that can identify new targets and therapies within 24 hours, in sharp contrast to the weeks or months currently required. 

DARPA's Rapid Vaccine Assessment (RVA) program has been developing new ways to test vaccines and rapidly provide more precise, biologically relevant evaluation of human responses than conventional tissue culture systems or animal testing.

For combat injuries on the battlefield, hemorrhage continues to be the leading cause of death, accounting for about 50% of fatalities, DARPA said. To provide more time for evacuation, triage, and supportive therapies, DARPA's Surviving Blood Loss (SBL) program has been developing novel strategies to delay the onset of hemorrhagic shock due to blood loss by extending the "golden hour" after severe trauma to six to ten hours, or more.

SBL is working to understand how energy production, metabolism, and oxygen use is controlled, and to identify protective mechanisms to preserve cellular function despite low oxygen caused by blood loss. SBL has identified very promising compounds, including hydrogen sulfide and estrogen, that, in large animal tests, extend survival from potentially lethal hemorrhage to more than three hours without requiring resuscitative fluids. Human safety trials for hydrogen sulfide are proceeding.

Miscellaneous core technologies

All things Quantum

DARPA's Quantum Entanglement Science and Technology (QuEST) program is creating new quantum information science technologies, focusing on loss of information due to quantum decoherence, limited communication distance due to signal attenuation, protocols, and larger numbers of quantum bits (Qubits) and their entanglement. Key among the program's challenges is integrating improved single- and entangled-photon and electron sources and detectors into quantum computation and communication networks. Defense applications include highly secure communications, algorithms for optimization in logistics, highly precise measurements of time and position on the earth and in space, and new image and signal processing methods for target tracking.

Parts is parts

DARPA's Structural Amorphous Metals (SAM) program is building a new class of bulk materials with amorphous or "glassy" microstructures that have previously unobtainable combinations of hardness, strength, damage tolerance and corrosion resistance. Calcium-based SAM alloys are being developed for ultralight space structures, aluminum-based alloys for efficient turbine compressor blades, and iron-based alloys for corrosion resistance in marine environments. In an effort with the Navy, the Naval Advanced Amorphous Coatings program has devised a thermal spray technique that produces textured amorphous metal coatings with a high coefficient of friction and wear, impact, and corrosion resistance that is superior to any other corrosion-resistant, non-skid material, with the goal of certifying them for unrestricted use on Navy ships.

Honey I shrunk the device

Advances in nano-science and nanotechnology, where matter is manipulated at the atomic scale enable still-more-complex capabilities in ever smaller and lower-power packages. DARPA envisions adaptable microsystems for enhanced radio frequency and optical sensing; more versatile signal processors for extracting minute signals in the presence of overwhelming noise and intense enemy jamming; high-performance communication links with assured bandwidth; and intelligent chips that let a user convert data into information in near-real-time.

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