The defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gets a ton of funding to develop the science and technological future of the military.This is the agency responsible for GPS, the internet and stealth planes. They’re the real deal.
We looked at their active projects to find the ones that might have massive civilian implications if they eventually produce real-world tech.
The last few times we did this, we focused on the defence Science Office, the Information Innovation Office and the Microsystems Technology Office. This time, we look at the Strategic Technologies Office, which is researching the weapons that will eventually define high-tech communications systems.
So far the federal government has shown that biofuel research is absolutely a political issue, suspect to wild sways in funding depending on who is in charge. Critics lambasted the biofuel program as speculative, implausible, and underdeveloped.
Conveniently, that's DARPA's specialty.
DARPA is researching the next phase of biofuel research. They're working with General Atomics and Logos Technologies to work on developing biofuels from algae and cellulose.
So far, they've made progress. They're aiming to develop a means of mass production, which could get difficult, but they're already making algae systems, ponds, fermented municipal solid waste (Yes, that's what you think it is), and alcohol into a gasoline equivalent.
The National Cyber Range is one of the cooler ideas that DARPA has come up with, even though it's conceptually somewhat simple.
Right now, it's not possible to replicate the complexity of a network of thousands and thousands of computers. There's (basically) only one internet. DARPA wants a testing range for cybersecurity solutions and offensive capabilities.
The idea is that, rather than merely releasing the test viruses onto the open web, this self contained network could be used to test the efficacy of defensive and offensive software. It should cut back significantly on the time spent testing new technologies.
One struggle is to make it so that a virulent piece of code can get on to the system without compromising the whole network.
Right now it's in beta testing.
DARPA does an immense amount of research into Photonics, specifically fibre optics.
The CORONET program looks into ramping up internet speeds with the application of fibre optic cable technology as part of the core connecting hardware that makes up the physical 'internet.'
The idea is that a faster internet will expedite communications of military brass to forces on the ground. The civilian windfall, though, will be huge.
DARPA is developing a solar powered sensor of 'unprecedented proportions' in their Integrated Sensor is Structure (ISIS) program.
It's a stratospheric airship that will conduct persistent wide area surveillance, tracking, and engagement of air and ground targets.
It's compressing antennae and high-density components into a single airship. A floating radar system could change the way that people perceive their world and weather.
For the military, soldiers typically operate through mobile 'ad hoc' networks that relay communications back to a home network, and just like any other it bogs down when it's crowded .
DARPA's Fixed wireless at a distance program wants to make a new system that can be deployed and greatly expand the power of these networks. The hope is to develop communication devices and systems that has unlimited 'scalability.'
This means that the number of users on the network can steadily grow without disturbing high speed communications.
Were DARPA to make this work in the military, an eventual integration into civilian communication networks could change the way people electronically talk.
One of the Military's biggest issues is getting a secure network to forward operating base in a war theatre. By definition, these bases are in remote areas where it's difficult to maintain a consistent supply chain.
Sort of like all the areas in the U.S. that get terrible wireless coverage, only much more dangerous.
DARPA's Mobile Hotspots program wants to make air, mobile, and fixed assets that provide Gigabit per second tactical access to the network. They're developing advanced pointing, acquisition and tracking capabilities that go beyond what is commercially available in the market.
Once done, the military should be able to use UAVs as flying nodes on the network grid.
The Renewable At-Sea Power program is developing the capability to harvest and store energy from ocean waves.
This science is crucial for the success of underwater drones. The ability to extract power from the natural forces of their surroundings could enable Automated Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) to run for significantly longer than they can today.
DARPA is specifically interested in establishing re-charging stations for AUVs using this tech.
When a plane takes off from an aircraft carrier, the carrier is right up against the output of a jet engine. When that plane takes off vertically -- as one version of the F-35 fighter are designed to do -- immense heat is shot directly at the surface of the carrier runway, which over time leads to a misshapen and warped runway.
That's not good.
DARPA is developing new materials that can handle that immense level of direct heat through its Thermal Management System fo Ship Decking program.
A thermally powerful and non-skid surface that is highly resistant to heat could see use industrially or domestically.
Radio signals all operate somewhere along the Radio Frequency spectrum. When you tune the radio in your car, you're telling the radio to adjust which frequency it is receiving.
The military uses radios constantly, and interference and jamming of these signals is a major worry.
DARPA's Advanced RF Mapping program seeks to map the airwaves, identifying which frequencies have high use and which have low. This will allow the Army to optimise the frequencies they communicate on to ensure reliability.
In civilian life, radio frequencies are in use everywhere, and there is a finite amount of real estate that can be used. Mapping this and optimising this could prove very useful for those allocating the signal spectrum.
The Aero-Adaptive/Aero-Optic Beam Control program has a simple goal: arm aircraft with high energy lasers that can shoot backward.
It's difficult to contend with threats coming from behind an aircraft. Getting the timing and direction oriented for countermeasures is difficult for a single pilot. So, having an autonomous laser cannon that can shoot out incoming threats with a high intensity beam of light is a rather attractive option for pilots.
Once they complete wind tunnel testing, flight tests will be carried out.
The Military uses the internet in much the same way as civilians. Content must be transferred, replicated, and distributed across networks.
Right now, the exchange of data between ground forces and higher echelon command requires inefficient and comparatively slow communications. To find what other ground forces are producing, war fighters have to go up and down the chain of command, even if they are neighbouring units.
DARPA's Content-Based Mobile Edge Networking program is trying to overcome that difficulty. It'll allow for content correlation and easier transfer of data.
Should DARPA solve the problem of direct communication on the Military's network, the civilian implications for work-around online could come too.
The Visibuilding program has a really ambitious goal: find everyone and every weapon inside a building from the outside.
Using radar signals, the Visibuilding program tried to visualise moving personnel within a building as well as a static floor plan and ventilation system map.
Eventually, they were able to provide 3D maps of target buildings and also find large concentrations of metal, like weapons cache.
All of this tech is headed to the Army and SOCOM, but if it eventually ends up in civilian hands it could be useful to civilian police and firefighters.
Through the Assured Arctic Awareness program, DARPA plans to dominate the far, frosty north.
According to DARPA, as ice retreats over the Arctic the region will gain significance as a commercial and military avenue of transit and operations.
They plan to be prepared for that possibility, and are developing new tech to ensure situational awareness and security. This tech entails a distributed sensor system beneath the ice and the plans for a possible station in the Arctic. The key is that the systems must be rugged enough to withstand Arctic conditions.
For civilian uses, the Arctic is a major area of scientific and commercial focus. As the ice recedes, it will become a major avenue for easy international shipping. Having complete awareness of the area only benefits the U.S. as a whole.
DARPA has plans for a system that neutralizes surface-to-air threats to aircraft with its High Energy Liquid Area defence System (HELLADS).
Since typically Surface to Air missiles are much, much faster than the plane they're attempting to hit, it's difficult for aircraft to take action against an incoming missile. However, using the speed of light and the power of a laser, multiple incoming threats can be neutralized in record time.
DARPA also believes that this system is powerful enough to take out ground targets. DARPA wants a laser that is lighter and more compact than the current state-of-the-art.
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