DARPA: developing the wild, the wacky and wicked cool for 50 years

If you want night vision goggles or an unmanned aircraft the size of a fish or perhaps your basic underpinnings of the Internet, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the place to go. 

The advanced scientific outfit was formed 50 years ago today, on February 7, 1958 and has in its history introduced the world to a host of revolutionary technologies.    

Interestingly, DARPA defines its mission as preventing technological surprise for the United States and to create technological surprise for adversaries. Indeed at the time the agency was established in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik a launch that surprised and embarrassed the United States as the Soviets became the first to successfully launch a satellite into space, DARPA said in a release. 

 “DARPA started the Saturn rocket engine program that gave the United States the ability to go to the Moon less than 10 years later. DARPA also started satellite projects such as Discoverer and Corona, classified programs that kept Presidents informed on Soviet activities for years,” notes DARPA’s current Director, Dr. Tony Tether. “Everyone has heard of the ARPANET, a 1960s idea that originally had only a few connections. It led to the Internet, now approaching billions of connections,” says Tether.

“Or stealth airplanes, such as Have Blue, which fundamentally changed air warfare, and the Predator and Global Hawk, unmanned air vehicles flying today in Iraq. And more recently, the Grand Challenge which demonstrated that driverless vehicles can operate safely in traffic with other manned and unmanned vehicles. All of these are DARPA accomplishments, ” Tether said.

Other DARPA achievements are less well-known: new materials such as gallium arsenide, used in high-speed circuits; new metals, such as beryllium, stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum; solid-state photon detectors, from visible to long wavelength, which led to night-vision capabilities, microwave and millimeterwave monolithic integrated circuits, the essence of today’s cell phones and miniature GPS receivers; lithography that allowed the number of transistors to reach 100 billion on a chip smaller than the size of a thumbnail.

Two DARPA technologies -- very large-scale integrated circuits, or VLSI, and graphic-design software -- were originally developed, in part, to manage daunting controls faced by military pilots who made split-second decisions in advanced jets but that work also helped create the computer workstation industry, including such companies as Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems, DARPA said.

A look at recent news shows the breadth of DARPA’s technological reach: 

Carnegie Mellon grabs robot car racing flag, $2 million

Star Trek-like 'Phraselator' device helps police communicate 

Fast language translation software for laptops, hand-held devices on tap from BBN

Government’s quantum science push moves forward

Unmanned Flying Fish seaplane makes a splash

Carnegie Mellon gets $14.4 million to build robo-tank 

Bird sized airplane could revolutionize intelligence-gathering efforts 

Of course, in 50 years you would have to have a few turkeys and DARPA is no exception. "When we fail, we fail big," said former DARPA Director Charles Herzfeld, in looking at some of the agency’s failures in an official 1975 history of DARPA. 

The two main failures of the agency most often cited are the FutureMap project which aimed at building an online seer, able to predict all manner of bad things like assassinations and bombings.  Then there was AGILE, a Vietnam era program that looked at all manner of scientific issues regarding the war.  The Los Angeles Times has a great look at the agency and some of its past failures.

Today, DARPA has about 240 personnel (approximately 140 of which are technical) directly managing a budget of about $2 billion.

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