The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was created with a national sense of urgency in February 1958 amidst one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Cold War and the already-accelerating pace of technology. In the months preceding the official authorization for the agency's creation, the Soviet Union had launched an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), as well as the world's first satellite, Sputnik 1.

Figure 1. DARPA's Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program aims to develop and test algorithms that could reduce the amount of processing power, communications, and human intervention needed for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to accomplish low-level tasks such as navigation around obstacles in a cluttered environment.

Out of this experience of technological surprise in the first moments of the Space Age, U.S. leadership created DARPA, initially with the shorter name Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). In the nearly 60 years since it was established, DARPA has owned the critical mission of keeping the United States in front when it comes to cultivating breakthrough technologies for national security, rather than in a position of catching up to strategically important innovations and achievements of others. With no research and development facilities of its own, DARPA has become known as a laboratory and incubator of innovation by providing thought leadership, technology challenges, research management, and funding.

Working with innovators inside and outside of government, DARPA has transformed revolutionary concepts into practical capabilities. The results have included not only game-changing military capabilities such as precision weapons and stealth technology, but also the Internet, automated voice recognition and language translation, and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers small enough to embed in consumer devices.

DARPA works within an innovation ecosystem that includes academic, corporate, and governmental partners, with a constant focus on the nation's military services, which work with DARPA to create new strategic opportunities and tactical options.

DARPA comprises six technical offices that oversee about 250 research and development programs. Based in Arlington, VA, DARPA is led by Acting Director Dr. Steven H. Walker. Today, DARPA focuses its strategic investments in four main areas:

  • Rethink Complex Military Systems. To help enable faster development and integration of breakthrough military capabilities, DARPA works to make weapons systems more modular and easily upgraded and improved; assure superiority in the air, maritime, ground, space, and cyber domains; improve position, navigation, and timing (PNT) without depending on the satellite-based Global Positioning System; and augment defenses against terrorism.
  • Master the Information Explosion. DARPA is developing novel approaches to deriving insights from massive datasets, with powerful big-data tools. The agency is also developing technologies to ensure that the data and systems with which critical decisions are made are trustworthy, such as automated cyber defense capabilities and methods to create fundamentally more secure systems.
  • Harness Biology as Technology. To leverage recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, immunology, genetics, and related fields, DARPA works to accelerate progress in synthetic biology, outpace the spread of infectious diseases, and master new neurotechnologies.
  • Expand the Technological Frontier. DARPA's core work involves applying new capabilities made possible by technology breakthroughs directly to national security needs. Maintaining momentum in this specialty, DARPA works to achieve new capabilities by applying deep mathematics; inventing new chemistries, processes, and materials; and harnessing quantum physics.

DARPA's Research Portfolio

Figure 2. When it comes to transistors that generate and receive radiofrequency (RF) and millimeter-wave signals, DARPA's new Dynamic Range-enhanced Electronics and Materials (DREaM) program is designed to provide openings to these advances.

DARPA's research portfolio is managed by six technical offices charged with developing breakthrough technologies:

Biological Technology Office (BTO). From programmable microbes to human-machine symbiosis, biological technologies are expanding our definition of technology and redefining how we interact with and use biology. The BTO is focused on leveraging advances in engineering and information sciences to drive and reshape biotechnology for technological advantage. BTO is responsible for all neurotechnology, human-machine interface, human performance, infectious disease, and synthetic biology programs within the Agency.

Defense Sciences Office (DSO). The DSO identifies and pursues high-risk, high-payoff research initiatives across a broad spectrum of science and engineering disciplines — sometimes reshaping existing fields or creating entirely new disciplines — and transforms these initiatives into game-changing technologies for U.S. national security. The current focus areas are Mathematics, Modeling, and Design; Physical Sciences; Human-Machine Systems; and Social Systems.

Information Innovation Office (I2O). Modern society depends on information, and information depends on information systems. The I2O develops game-changing information science and technology to ensure information advantage for the U.S. and its allies. To accomplish this, I2O sponsors basic and applied research in three thrust areas:

  1. Cyber. As human activity has moved into cyberspace, cyber threats against our information systems have grown in sophistication and number, and protecting and assuring information is a matter of national security. The I2O defensive cyber R&D portfolio is focused on high-end cyber threats, including advanced persistent threats (cyber espionage and cyber sabotage) and other sophisticated threats to embedded computing systems, cyber-physical systems, enterprise information systems, and critical infrastructure.
  2. Analytics. Exponential increases in computation, storage, and connectivity have combined over the past five years to fundamentally alter science, engineering, commerce, and national security. I2O explores fundamental mathematical and computational issues such as complexity and scalability, and develops applications in high-impact areas such as intelligence, software engineering, and command and control. I2O coordinates its R&D with the national security community to ensure timely transition of tools and techniques.
  3. Symbiosis. I2O sets a goal to partner with machines. The symbiosis portfolio develops technologies to enable machines to understand speech and extract information contained in diverse media; to learn, reason, and apply knowledge gained through experience; and to respond intelligently to new and unforeseen events.
Figure 3. The DoD's strategic plan calls for the Joint Force to conduct humanitarian, disaster relief, and related operations. The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) promotes innovation in robotic technology for disaster-response operations. The primary technical goal of the DRC is to develop human-supervised ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments.

Microsystems Technology Office (MTO). Since its inception in 1991, the MTO has been working to create and prevent strategic surprise through investments in compact microelectronic components such as microprocessors, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and photonic devices. MTO-derived innovations and advanced capabilities in areas such as wide-bandgap materials, phased-array radars, high-energy lasers, and infrared imaging have helped the U.S. establish and maintain technological superiority for more than two decades. The MTO is pursuing new technologies in three thrust areas:

  1. Tactical Information Extraction. MTO is developing technologies that will enable future warfighters to extract actionable intelligence from the numerous sensor feeds around them, even in areas where access to robust network connections and cloud-based analytics is intermittent or unavailable. Research will include machine-learning techniques that enable enhanced autonomy for vehicles and other systems, and that support teaming warfighters with unmanned assets. Research will also include low-power hardware architectures that can bring complex computation and learning capabilities to embedded military applications for which power can otherwise be a limiting factor.
  2. Spectrum and Physics Interfaces. The effectiveness of land, sea, air, space, and cyber-based combat operations depends on controlling and exploiting the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. MTO is developing components to enable these capabilities, and to ensure effective U.S. operations in a dynamic, contentious spectrum environment. Research areas include radio-frequency (RF) and optical components and systems, and low-footprint sensor hardware, which together provide assured connectivity at high bandwidths, emphasize maximum flexibility, and facilitate fast development cycles for fielding complex EM systems.
  3. Globalization. The Department of Defense relies on advanced microelectronics for a range of capabilities including command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR). MTO is developing technology-based solutions that will help DoD better leverage commercially available semiconductor capabilities while ensuring the security and reliability of its microelectronics. MTO is also addressing the military's ongoing need for custom microelectronics. To continue providing the U.S. with a technological lead over potential adversaries, MTO is pursuing a diversity of research areas, among them application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) with “built-in trust” protection, technologies that accelerate DoD circuit-development timelines, and techniques that promise unprecedented performance for military systems.
Figure 4. Today's dismounted warfighter can be saddled with more than 100 pounds of gear, resulting in physical strain, fatigue, and degraded performance. DARPA is developing a four-legged robot — the Legged Squad Support System (LS3) — to integrate with a squad of soldiers. LS3 is a highly mobile, semi-autonomous legged robot that can carry 400 pounds of a squad's load, follow squad members through rugged terrain, and interact with troops in a natural way. The robot could also serve as a mobile auxiliary power source to the squad, so troops can recharge batteries for radios and handheld devices while on patrol.

Strategic Technology Office (STO). The STO is focused on technologies that enable fighting as a network to increase military effectiveness, cost leveraging, and adaptability. STO's areas of interest include: Battle Management, Command, and Control; Communications and Networks; Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; Electronic Warfare; Positioning, Navigation, and Timing; and Foundational Strategic Technologies and Systems.

Tactical Technology Office (TTO). The mission of the TTO is to provide or prevent strategic and tactical surprise with very high-payoff, high-risk development and demonstration of new platforms in Ground Systems, Maritime (Surface and Undersea) Systems, Air Systems, and Space Systems. This is accomplished through development and demonstration of system-level technologies and capabilities that outpace adversary capabilities and force structures; model-based approaches to autonomy, swarming, counter-swarm, multi-platform coordination, and multi-modal human-machine interaction optimized for human physiology; and unmanned platform efficiencies and performance, health monitoring, and damage detection. The TTO also develops approaches that allow for system and/or task performance analysis, testing, and evaluation of advanced concepts.

Work with DARPA

Figure 5. To create advanced prosthetic limbs, a team funded by DARPA's Hand Proprio ception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program demonstrated how to encode graded sensations of pressure in the nervous system using electrical stimulation. When pressure sensors on a prosthetic hand are engaged, they send signals to a stimulator outside the wearer's body. The signal is carried through the nerves to the brain, which interprets those patterns to discern different levels of intensity.

DARPA pursues opportunities for transformational change rather than incremental advances. It does so collaboratively as part of an innovation ecosystem that includes academic, corporate, and governmental partners. To fulfill its mission, DARPA relies on multi-disciplinary approaches to both advance knowledge through basic research, and create innovative technologies that address current and predicted practical problems through applied research. In addition to program-specific opportunities, each DARPA technical office maintains an office-wide Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) that covers a range of technical areas of interest to each office. The BAAs are refreshed on an annual basis, and offer a mechanism to reach DARPA with ideas that could be valuable to national security.

BAAs can be found on the official federal acquisition opportunities Web sites at here  and here . Visit here  for information on re search supported by DARPA's technology offices.


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This article first appeared in the August, 2017 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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