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A Technophile’s Dream Job

The DARPA director’s job description reads like a technophile’s dream: oversee a lean agency, staffed with exceptionally talented people who look to the future, especially the far future, envision technologies that could be, and make them happen, all with minimal bureaucratic overhead. The agency’s specialty is investment in high-risk research that yields, in some cases, revolutionary technologies. Often, it provides the impetus to get a new technology off the ground.

“It’s a neat job to have because you see many, many things, and you have the brightest of the brightest constantly briefing you,” Tether says. “We have projects in almost anything you can imagine.”

DARPA has played a role in the development of myriad technologies, from the Saturn launch vehicles for the Gemini and Apollo programs in the 1960s and 1970s, to more recent innovations such as packet switching, stealth aircraft, high-power lasers, and the semiconductors in the heart of cell phones.

But the agency doesn’t do R&D, it funds and manages it, relying on university and industry teams to make the advances it envisions. And when projects succeed, DARPA hands off the new developments to the armed services or the companies and universities that did the work.

“If I could get somebody to make an edict that anything that had DARPA technology in it had to have a sticker put on it called ‘DARPA Inside,’ there wouldn’t be anything in the Department of Defense that wouldn’t have a sticker,” Tether says. “And I would say there’s probably a large percentage, if not even more than 50 percent, of all things out in the commercial world that also would have a ‘DARPA Inside’ sticker put on them.”

Others share his opinion. In a column published last fall in Technology Review, Michael Dertouzos, former director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, wrote, “DARPA has been responsible for about one-half of the major innovations that have made information technology what it is today.”

The agency has been a veritable treasure chest of new military technologies, including the Tomahawk cruise missiles used in Operation Desert Storm a decade ago, which were propelled by engines DARPA helped develop, and the stealth aircraft and precision weapons that first saw battle against Iraq.
Airborne Robot
To Air Force Col. Michael Leahy ’86, (pictured below) managing the DARPA/Air Force project to develop a semi-autonomous strike aircraft isn’t all that far from his doctoral research at Rensselaer, which focused on industrial robots.

“I view this as an airborne robot,” says Leahy of the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle or UCAV.

As a robot, the UCAV is a huge challenge because it takes embedded control and coordination to new levels of complexity, he says. The planes are expected to operate in flights of four, supervised from the ground by a single pilot-operator. Their human boss will provide necessary judgment and insight, but the vehicles will coordinate among themselves the details of their mission.

“That is the step jump from where any other UAV is today,” says Leahy, a project manager assigned to DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

The first two prototypes, designated X-45As, are due to fly this summer, and their successors, X-45Bs, are scheduled to enter field testing in 2005, Leahy says. Software development is still in the first of five phases.

Preparing for the War on Terrorism

DARPA has been on the front lines of the war on terrorism since the early 1990s, when it began developing tools for detecting, understanding, and countering terrorist networks. It launched projects in evidence extraction and link discovery, creating systems to detect and track terrorist networks, and in behavioral analysis and group dynamics, working toward systems that potentially could predict what such groups will do. It also convened projects to counter biological threats, developing systems to detect bio-warfare agents and searching for vaccines to protect against them and medicines and decontamination techniques to neutralize them.

Bucking trends in the pharmaceutical industry, where drugs are increasingly specialized, DARPA has led a search for a single drug that could be used to fight multiple “bugs,” Tether says. Its team has found a promising characteristic among the exotic pathogens under study—a few shared segments of genetic code that don’t occur in humans. If it can find a drug that will attack those segments, DARPA may have the key to a “one drug, many bugs” defense against biological attack.

Tether accelerated these long-term efforts following Sept. 11 and last fall’s anthrax attacks.

He created a new Information Awareness Office, which is building a prototype information awareness system to see whether such technology really can recognize terrorist organizations. He also is pressing ahead a program called “War-gaming the Asymmetric Environment,” designed to predict terrorist behavior well enough that forces fighting them can pre-empt future attacks.

Tether describes the systems as an information-age version of the DEW Line, the string of radar emplacements that watched Arctic skies for signs of attack during the Cold War. The difference, he says, is “we’re not looking for bombers. We’re not looking for missiles. We’re looking for groups of people who seem to be gathering to do something evil to the United States.”

Tether leads 220 DARPA employees in three mission areas: finding technical solutions to national-level problems, providing technologies necessary to give our armed forces operational dominance, and developing and exploiting high-risk, high-payoff core technologies for military use.

Link discovery falls under operational dominance, along with projects to create affordable, precision systems for finding and striking elusive targets such as mobile anti-aircraft missile systems; technologies for repelling attacks by large numbers of simple cruise missiles; devices for identifying people from a distance; and a clandestine communication system for soldiers working in buildings, jungles, tunnels, or mountains.

Other projects under this heading are devoted to producing pilotless airplanes for the Air Force and Navy that will be supervised by a human pilot on the ground but will work without constant human control (see “Airborne Robot”); a pilotless helicopter for the Army; miniature air-robots to serve as combat scouts; and tools to help ship designers create faster, more efficient vessels.

Core technology projects may produce software to enable computer systems to learn so future robotic vehicles can navigate on their own; computer systems that monitor themselves and can “heal,” that use less energy, and that can adapt their operations to meet changing needs; microsensors that when scattered on a battlefield could organize themselves into an ad-hoc network and send surveillance information back to headquarters; and non-silicon-based semiconductors that take advantage of quantum effects.

DARPA researchers also are working on projects that could yield shoebox-size, legged robots; exoskeletons to be worn by soldiers; methods for printing electronic circuitry onto the fibers of clothing or other surfaces; aircraft able to change the shapes of their wings in flight; ways of allowing soldiers to stay awake and alert for up to a week at a stretch without ill effects; and fast-healing technologies.

Tether often qualifies descriptions of these potential new technologies with “if we can do this” and “if this works.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: June 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
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