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.

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