Photo: wbaiv via flickr
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.
Last round, we focused on the defence Science Office and their Information Innovation Office. This time, we’re looking at DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office, which is researching the next age of computing technology.
The defence Department is always worried about the use of conventional weapons in urban warfare. The risk lies in confining the damage to enemies and their weapons and avoiding collateral damage.
That -- among other reasons -- is why the Department of defence really, really wants a laser weapon. DARPA plans to give it to them.
The Excalibur program is developing laser weapons that are 10 times lighter than existing combat lasers. They're practically handheld. Eventually, DARPA wants to enable 100 kilowatt devices used in precision strikes against ground and air targets.
As it stands, blood infections impacted more than 1,500 servicemembers in 2009 alone.
DARPA is developing a portable device that will remove contaminated blood from the body, remove harmful agents, and return the 'clean' blood to the body, similar in style to the way dialysis machines remove toxins from patients' blood.
The researchers are well aware of the civilian implications. DARPA claims that the eventual device could save 'thousands of lives and billions of dollars in the United States annually.'
DARPA plans to build the portable device beginning in Fall, 2012.
While externally monitoring for disease is important, DARPA is working on an inside way to find out if someone is sick.
The In Vivo Nanoplatforms program is trying to develop classes of nanoparticles to sense and treat illness, disease, and infection on the inside.
The tech involves implantable nanoparticles which sense specific molecules of biological interest. DARPA is working on a complete system demonstration in a large animal.
The loud and breakable fans on computer systems stems from the necessity that high efficiency chips don't overheat. As circuits become more and more compact, they also run hotter. So the need for ventilation is growing rapidly and at some point that's going to become inefficient.
That's where DARPA is jumping in with their Intrachip Enhanced Cooling (ICECOOL) program. This plan rejects the idea that air needs to be blown in too cool down chips, and instead envisions embedded thermal management systems in the silicon itself.
Right now DARPA is fielding proposals. A solution to this could make overheated electronics history.
Thermal Imaging is used in many military capacities, when available. Still, the technology is relatively expensive, which prevents the Department of defence from using as much as they would like.
The Low Cost Thermal Imager manufacturing program attempts to make this technology cheap and available. DARPA doesn't see any reason why thermal imaging machinery shouldn't be in cell phones, eyeglasses, drones, rifle sights, and helmets.
Since DARPA's goal is a camera on a chip, the new thermal cameras could see use in many fields.
The Department of defence doesn't like the amount of resources necessary to make a novel biological discovery. As it stands, to develop a single therapy and mass produce it -- for instance, the anti-malarial drug extracted from bacteria secretions -- takes years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars.
DARPA wants to seize the means of production and turn it on its head. Through the Living Foundries program, DARPA wants to develop techniques and new branches of science that can program and engineer biology.
It's immensely ambitious, but the possibility of mass produced biological solutions is enticing to say the least.
DARPA likes the idea of cyborg technology quite a bit. The agency is intrigued by the success of cochlear implants, the artificial ears that enable deaf people to hear. One of the biggest hurdles for technological improvements to humans is the point of connection where man meets machine.
DARPA's Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program wants to develop implants and improvements that can connect to the human central nervous system reliably for decades. They want enhancements that can provide quality perception at reliable speeds.
Civilian implications are immense, considering the eventual medical and speculative recreational uses.
Lots of Department of defence hardware is dependent on GPS, which is pretty much expected. One issue comes in when you realise just how dependent they are. Jamming systems and low-service areas can hamstring weaponry that requires constant GPS contact to function.
DARPA's Micro-technology for Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (MICRO-PNT) program is designing a solution. It's aiming to design hardware that allow GPS-dependent technology to continue functioning after losing the signal. It will calculate the information GPS would provide based on last known position and trajectory and speed and similar information in lieu of hard GPS data.
This has multiple civilian uses. Imagine using Google Maps on the subway, for one thing, or in spotty service areas.
With most of the manufacture of raw materials outsourced overseas, the Department of defence is worried about the integrity of systems developed using imported circuits.
Since the defence Department can't conceive ably monitor the manufacture of every chip, DARPA is developing the Integrity and Reliability of Integrated Circuits (IRIS) program to create technology to derive the function of individual circuits without having to destroy them.
This means that DARPA will be able to look at a circuit and ensure that it does precisely what it is intended to do.
This could result in civilians being able to ensure that their computer's hardware is free from keyloggers or counterfeit devices. Plus, civilian computer repair could find uses if the results are commercially available.
At the moment, the technology necessary to screen for chemical and biological weapon use is large, heavy, and very expensive.
DARPA's Compact Mid-ultraviolet technology program wants to make the identification of those weapons much more compact and mobile. The goal is to develop a device that will use UV light, and any advances in the program will have uses in drinking water decontamination and bioweapon tracking.
Computing speed is calculated in Floating-Point Operations Per Second (FLOPS), a measure of the number of simple operations a system can do per second. Right now this is typically measured in the gigaflops, or billions of operations per second, range. Also of importance is gigaflops per watt, a measure of energy usage efficiency. How does performance in relation to energy consumption improve?
DARPA wants to see the current measure of around 1 gigaflops/watt expand to 75 gigaflops/watt. The Power Efficiency Revolution For Embedded Computing Technologies (PERFECT) program wants to revolutionise energy consumption.
If successful, this 7500% efficiency overhaul could lead to smartphones that run for weeks and laptops that need a recharge about as often as you gas up a Prius.
DARPA is heavily invested in nanotechnology. Core concepts have been proven, and the tech is viable. What remains difficult is mass production.
In the Tip-Based Nanofabrication program, DARPA is trying to make controlled manufacture of nano-scale materials a reality. It's already been demonstrated that 'forests' of nanotubes can be grown, but controlling and manipulating that growth is the goal of this program.
If successful, a whole new technological field stands wide open. The controlled manufacture of nanotubes, nanowires, and quantum dots would enable the construction of nanomachines from now unavailable raw materials. The fields of medicine and consumer technology are eagerly awaiting the results.
As you probably could tell, DARPA really, really likes lasers. Here, the plan is to combine multiple lasers operating at different wavelengths into a single beam in order to improve beam intensity. The team wants to make an efficient laser that can maintain a single beam with intensity.
The goal of the Architecture for Diode High Energy Laser System (ADHELs) program is a brand new high intensity laser, with immediate use in drones to defend from attack.
As for civilian applications, lasers are already in widespread use industrially and a better one would make a big commercial splash.
As it stands, Integrated Circuits are by and large schematically two dimensional objects. DARPA is thinking outside the box in a huge way and is trying to develop three dimensional integrated circuits.
Their success would mean that computer technology runs even faster, as a significant limitation would be lifted. One thing holding back further growth is that the complexity of circuits has expanded to the point where soon there may not be enough space on 2 dimensional circuit boards for all the necessary connections to run.
Conceptualizing circuits in three dimensions -- while very difficult to implement -- allows DARPA to expand and compact the technology.
DARPA has a handful of laser projects going on right now, but this one could have some of the most widespread civilian uses.
The Ultrabeam is the first gamma-ray laser. The military likes it because the advanced 'x-ray' could be used for inspection of materials of interest, like import containers and personnel.
Medically, it could be huge.
Compact gamma ray lasers could enable new types of radiation therapies and diagnostic tools.
Right now, nearly all the raw materials for circuit boards are manufactured overseas because that's the cheapest and most efficient way to mass manufacture computer technology.
This could potentially be a huge risk for the Department of defence, because most of the raw chips used in DoD technology comes from abroad and is purchased commercially. That's why DARPA has its LEAP program to try to get circuit development back on U.S. shores.
This program grants access to DoD semiconductor materials to universities, researchers, and domestic developers in the hopes that American-made integrated circuits come soon.
As circuitry gets smaller and more compact, it also gets much hotter faster. Heat can kill a circuit, hence the need for fans and heat dispersion technology. But still, that's not ambitious enough for the kinds of technology the Department wants.
DARPA's Thermal Management Technologies program is experimenting with five different ways to keep systems cool. These include heat-pipe adapted technology, cooling microtechnology, new materials, thermoelectric coolers,and upgraded power amplifiers.
Most advancements in heat dispersion could be applied to consumer electronics
One thing holding back computer development is the fact that at the moment, computer chips must be constructed on a number of different materials.
Silicon is the most common, but specialised chips are built on Gallium Nitride, Gallium Arsenide, Antimonide, and other different types of material.
The goal of DARPA's Diverse Accessible Heterogeneous Integration program is to make a universal base with a single substrate to combine the chips and save precious time.
The use in civilian equipment could make computers run more efficiently since data would not have to be sent between two different types of chips.
The military is constantly interested in improving cameras. Better cameras mean better intelligence which then means better mission execution. That's why DARPA started the Advanced Wide FOV Architectures For Image Reconstruction and Exploitation (AWARE) program.
This is that gigapixel-grade camera you've maybe heard about. It combines more than 150 cameras into a single lens. The aim is to produce 10 to 50 gigapixel images, a resolution far more clear than the range the human eye can see.
In civilian life, advanced imaging has a number of uses in medicine, commerce, media, technology, and recreational uses.
DARPA wants to make a resilient, low-power supercomputer that can be programmed by essentially laymen
The Ubiquitous High Performance Computing program approaches computers very nearly from square one. DARPA wants to develop new computer systems that are resilient to cyber attack, more efficient with power, and are inherently more productive.
Most significantly, the program wants computers that can be programmed by people with very little experience. The program is one of DARPA's more ambitious, and the fact that Intel, MIT, NVIDIA, and Sandia National Lab are each making an attempt at it means that the agency is taking it seriously.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.