4 DARPA Projects That Could Be Bigger Than the Internet

Court Edmondson works on the team NASA robot during the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on December 21, 2013 in Homestead, Florida.
National Journal
May 21, 2014, 7:06 a.m.

Forty years ago, a group of re­search­ers with mil­it­ary money set out to test the wacky idea of mak­ing com­puters talk to one an­oth­er in a new way, us­ing di­git­al in­form­a­tion pack­ets that could be traded among mul­tiple ma­chines rather than tele­phon­ic, point-to-point cir­cuit re­lays. The pro­ject, called ARPAN­ET, went on to fun­da­ment­ally change life on Earth un­der its more com­mon name, the In­ter­net.

Today, the agency that bank­rolled the In­ter­net is called the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Pro­jects Agency, or DARPA, which boasts a rising budget of nearly $3 bil­lion split across 250 pro­grams. They all have na­tion­al se­cur­ity im­plic­a­tions but, like the In­ter­net, much of what DARPA funds can be com­mer­cial­ized, spread, and po­ten­tially change ci­vil­ian life in big ways that its ori­gin­at­ors didn’t con­ceive.

What’s DARPA work­ing on lately that that could be In­ter­net big? Last week at the At­lantic Coun­cil, DARPA dir­ect­or Ar­ati Prabhakar de­clined to name names. Like a good mu­tu­al fund man­ager, she said that her job was to “man­age risk through di­versity” in her port­fo­lio. But the tech­no­lo­gies that she high­lighted in her re­cent testi­mony (PDF) to the Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee look like a list of in­sider fa­vor­ites. Many have re­ceived much less pub­lic at­ten­tion than DARPA’s flash­i­er ro­bot ini­ti­at­ives.

Here are four of DARPA’s po­ten­tial next big things:

1. Atom­ic GPS

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, say re­search­ers.

That means hav­ing more cap­able and cheap­er devices with geo-loc­a­tion cap­ab­il­ity, with the po­ten­tial to im­prove everything from self-driv­ing cars and those an­ti­cip­ated pizza de­liv­ery drones.

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.

The up­shot for quantum nav­ig­a­tion for any mil­it­ary is ob­vi­ous. It arms them with bet­ter and more re­li­able situ­ation­al aware­ness for sol­diers and equip­ment and bet­ter fly­ing for mis­siles. Per­haps, more im­port­antly, a drone with a quantum com­pass wouldn’t re­quire satel­lite nav­ig­a­tion, which would make it much easi­er to fly and less hack­able.

The big be­ne­fit for every­body else? Fu­ture devices that un­der­stand where they are in re­la­tion to one an­oth­er and their phys­ic­al world won’t need to rely on an ex­pens­ive satel­lite in­fra­struc­ture to work. That means hav­ing more cap­able and cheap­er devices with geo-loc­a­tion cap­ab­il­ity, with the po­ten­tial to im­prove everything from real-time, loc­a­tion-based searches to self-driv­ing cars and those an­ti­cip­ated pizza de­liv­ery drones.

The most im­port­ant ci­vil­ian use for quantum GPS could be pri­vacy. Your phone won’t have to get sig­nals from space any­more to tell you where you are. It would know with atom­ic cer­tainty. That could make your phone less hack­able and, per­haps, al­low you to keep more in­form­a­tion out of the hands of your car­ri­er and the NSA.

2. Terehertz Fre­quency Elec­tron­ics and Meta-ma­ter­i­als

The area of the elec­tro­mag­net­ic spec­trum between mi­crowave, which we use for cell phones, and in­frared, is the Terehertz range. Today, it’s a ghost town, but if sci­ent­ists can fig­ure out how to har­ness it, we could open up a vast fron­ti­er of devices of that don’t com­pete against oth­ers for spec­trum ac­cess. That would be a stra­tegic ad­vant­age in a time when more mil­it­ary devices use the same elec­tro­mag­net­ic spec­trum space.

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.

3. A 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. The agency wants the to make sure that mil­it­ary vehicles, med­ic­al equip­ment and, yes, even drones can’t be hacked in­to from the out­side. In the fu­ture, some of the soft­ware tools that emerge from the HACMS pro­gram could be what keeps the ci­vil­ian In­ter­net of Things op­er­at­ing safely. This break­through won’t be as con­spicu­ous as the In­ter­net it­self. But you will know its in­flu­ence by what does not hap­pen be­cause of it — namely, a deadly in­dus­tri­al ac­ci­dent res­ult­ing from a cata­stroph­ic cy­ber-se­cur­ity breach. (See: Stuxnet.)

Without bet­ter se­cur­ity, many ex­perts be­lieve the In­ter­net of things will nev­er reach it’s full po­ten­tial. In a re­cent sur­vey by the Pew In­ter­net and Amer­ic­an Life Pro­ject about the fu­ture of phys­ic­al and di­git­al in­ter­con­nec­tion, In­ter­net pi­on­eer Vint Cerf, who was in­stru­ment­al in the suc­cess of ARPAN­ET, said that in or­der for the In­ter­net of things to really re­vo­lu­tion­ize the way we live it must be se­cure.

“Bar­ri­ers to the In­ter­net of Things in­clude fail­ure to achieve suf­fi­cient stand­ard­iz­a­tion and se­cur­ity,” he said. HACMS could provide the seeds for fu­ture se­cur­ity pro­to­cols, al­low­ing the In­ter­net of things to get off the ground.

4. 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.”

How is that use­ful right now? In the short term, this is an­oth­er re­search area not­able primar­ily for what doesn’t hap­pen after it hits, namely pan­dem­ics. It took years and a lot of money to fig­ure out that H5N1 bird flu be­came much more con­ta­gious with the pres­ence of an amino acid in a spe­cif­ic po­s­i­tion.. That’s what en­abled it to live in mam­mali­an lungs and, thus, po­ten­tially be spread by hu­mans via cough­ing and sneez­ing. Know­ing this secret earli­er would have pre­ven­ted a great deal of death.

In the dec­ades ahead, the biggest con­tri­bu­tion of the pro­gram may be fun­da­ment­al changes in fu­ture drug dis­cov­ery. “If suc­cess­ful, RTA could shift the cost-be­ne­fit trade space of us­ing chem­ic­al or bio­lo­gic­al weapons against U.S. forces and could also ap­ply to drug de­vel­op­ment to com­bat emer­ging dis­eases,” Prabhakar said.

Be­fore any of these four reach In­ter­net-level suc­cess, DARPA faces a big chal­lenge des­pite it’s con­tin­ued pop­ular­ity, in that they re­main a gov­ern­ment agency at a time when change moves faster than the U.S. gov­ern­ment un­der­stands.

“We move at a pace meas­ured in dec­ades in an en­vir­on­ment that changes every year,” Prabhaka said, at the At­lantic Coun­cil. In terms of the emer­ging tech­no­logy she’s most con­cerned about, it’s the un­known un­knowns, the U.S. mil­it­ary’s “abil­ity to handle this vast chan­ging land­scape.”

The agency that helped to bring about the In­ter­net, Siri and GPS will al­ways en­joy a cer­tain cache, war­ran­ted or not. But the world moves faster than even DARPA can keep up. Per­haps the most im­port­ant thing that DARPA can cre­ate in the years ahead is man­age­able ex­pect­a­tions.

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