DARPA director Arati Prabhakar highlighted four technology projects in her recent testimony (19 page PDF) to the Senate Appropriations Committee look like a list of insider favorites.
Consistent with our mission to prevent technological surprise by creating it, DARPA continues to invest across a wide range of fields where we see promising research that could lead to powerful technology capability. These investments are the seeds of what my successors, perhaps 5,10, or 15 years from now, will be describing to you as technology revolutions
Atomic GPS one thousand times more accurate than any current GPS with a prototype expected by 2019
The Global Positioning System, or GPS, which DARPA had an important but limited role in developing, is a great tool but maintaining it as a satellite system is increasingly costly. A modern GPS satellite can run into the range of $223 million, which is one reason why the Air Force recently scaled back its procurement.
DARPA doesn’t have an explicit program to replace GPS, but the DARPA-funded chip-scale combinatorial atomic navigation, or C-SCAN, and Quantum Assisted Sensing, or QuASAR, initiatives explore a field of research with big relevance here: the use of atomic physics for much better sensing. If you can measure or understand how the Earth’s magnetic field acceleration and position is effecting individual atoms (reduced in temperature), you can navigate without a satellite. In fact, you can achieve geo-location awareness that could be 1,000 times more accurate than any system currently in existence.
The British military is investing millions of pounds in a similar technology. Researchers associated with the project forecast that they will have a prototype ready within five years.
A drone with a quantum compass wouldn’t require satellite navigation, which would make it much easier to fly and less hackable.
DARPA is pushing the frontiers of physics to make them dramatically smaller, or more capable, or both.
iPhod ,COUGAR, and ORCHID Consider the many ways we are developing to harness light, which will directly affect the size, weight, cost and performance of military components ranging from small navigation sensors to phased array radars and communication antennas. One recently concluded program(iPhod) successfully miniaturized tools for creating delays in light transmission, while another (COUGAR) demonstrated unique designs in hollow-core fibers , which guide light within a device much more efficiently than conventional optical fibers. Yet another (ORCHID) successfully demonstrated the “squeezing” of light, a concept in quantum optics that can ultimately lead to dramatic performance gains in microsystems. These programs challenge the assumption that highly specialized, high-precision systems must be large and expensive
Algorithms Opening New Horizons
Research in mathematical algorithms is also creating important new technological opportunities.
Clustering algorithms can detect common activity patterns across a vast data set. A combination of vector mathematics , time integration, and power law distributions enables the analysis of ensemble behaviors–patterns that only become visible when correlated across large numbers of points. Time series analysis can find previously unknown outliers in a data set for anomaly detection.
Our programs apply these mathematical techniques to immense data sets with hundreds of millions or even many billions of elements. Individually or in combination, these new algorithmic approaches enable rapid analysis of data volumes that finally begins to scale with the complexity of the national security challenges that we face today.
Information at Scale Let’s consider a different aspect of complexity. As the information revolution continues, the sheer scale and variety of data seems immensely, and perhaps overwhelmingly, complex–but this challenge also presents major opportunities.
A Computer Virus Shield for the Internet of Things
CISCO systems has forecast 50 billion interconnected devices will inhabit the world by the year 2020, or everything from appliances to streets, pipes and utilities through supervisory command and control systems. All of that physical and digital interconnection is now known as the Internet of Things.
The High Assurance Cyber Military Systems program, or HACMS, which DARPA announced in 2012, is trying to patch the security vulnerabilities that could pervade the Internet of Things.
Rethinking Complex Military Systems
Much of DARPA’s work rethinks complex military systems, recasting today’s approach with the intention of achieving far greater capabilities at lower cost. Today, our military relies upon the meshing of electronic, optical, software, and mechanical components to create satellites and the vehicles, aircraft, and ships that carry our Warfighters into battle
Terahertz electronics and metamaterials
Research into THz electronics has applications in the construction of so-called meta-materials, which would lend themselves to use in cloaking for jets and equipment and even, perhaps, invisibility.
On the civilian side, because THz radiation, unlike X-ray radiation, is non-invasive, metamaterial smart clothes made with small THz sensors would allow for far faster and more precise detection of chemical changes in the body, which could indicate changes in health states. There’s the future doctor in your pocket.
Rapid Launch: Experimental Space Plane (XS-1) and Airborne Launch Assisted Space Access(ALASA)
Imagine a world in which getting a satellite into orbit can be as quick and re
liable as an aircraft takeoff. Our new Experimental Spaceplane is designed to take a 3,000-to 5,000-pound payload into orbit using an expendable upper stage, all for under $5 million; that is one-tenth the cost of a comparable launch today. Our ALASA program focuses on 100-pound payloads for less than $1 million. Even more striking is our goal of providing satellite launch es for these payloads with just 24 hours’ notice.
Avoiding Collisions in Space: Space Surveillance Telescope (SST)
In space, one major challenge is simply a lack of knowledge of what is around you. With satellite traffic and the risk of space collisions growing, space domain awareness is a top priority. DARPA’s SST enables much faster discovery and tracking of previously unseen, hard-to-find objects in geosynchronous orbits. We expect it to be ready for operations within 2 years in Australia as a result of a memorandum of understanding signed last November by Secretary of Defense Hagel with his counterpart.
Once operational on the Northwest Cape of Australia, SST will provide detection and tracking of satellites and space debris at and near geosynchronous orbits within the Asia-Pacific region, information U.S. space operators can use to better protect critical U.S. and Allied space-based capabilities
Biology as Technology
A major area of complexity of growing interest and importance to DARPA –and among the most promising for future major capabilities– is the idea of biology as technology. Biology is nature’s ultimate innovator, and any agency that hangs its hat on innovation would be foolish not to look to this master of networked complexity for inspiration and solutions.
Synthetic biology –a hybrid discipline of biology and engineering–has already proven itself capable of using customized bacteria to produce medicines, and now it is heading toward even more interesting applications as we harness it to create entirely new chemistries.
Our Living Foundries program seeks to develop the next-generation tools and technologies for engineering biological systems, compressing the biological design-build-test cycle in both time and cost
Rapid Threat Assessment
The Rapid Threat Assessment, or RTA, program wants to speed up by orders of magnitude how quickly researchers can figure out how diseases or agents work to kill humans. Instead of months or years, DARPA wants to enable researchers to “within 30 days of exposure to a human cell, map the complete molecular mechanism through which a threat agent alters cellular processes,” Prabhakar said in her testimony. “This would give researchers the framework with which to develop medical countermeasures and mitigate threats.”
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Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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