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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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.

Layer 8 in a box

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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