DARPA’s Wild Goose Chase and Ambitions to Mash Up the Place – Who Shall Save the Human Race?
DARPA can spend as much money as it wants on whatever it wants, even on things that don’t make any damn sense. Since its inception, the agency responsible for the internet, GPS, and stealth aircraft has produced a lot of strange and questionable things.
There appear to be a plethora of wild failures for every one of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency‘s wild successes – projects like mechanical elephants or telepathy research. DARPA’s ability to innovate outside the red tape of bureaucracy is what distinguishes it. DARPA is not subject to the same acquisition rules as other agencies, so it has fewer constraints on the scientists and innovators it can hire and the salaries it can offer.
The agency lacks financial constraints, allowing it to invest in risky projects in the hope that they will pay off – they are essentially the military’s innovative venture capitalists.
Here are a few of the more intriguing projects that have emerged from DARPA’s “high-risk, high-reward” environment.
1. Plant-Eating Machines
The Energy Autonomous Tactical Robot program, perhaps the most aptly named project on this list, sought to develop robots that could feed on plants in the same way that animals do. EATR would have allowed robots to stay in surveillance or defensive positions for much longer periods of time than humans or robots with more limited power sources.
“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population,” Cyclone Power Technologies CEO Harry Schoell said in a press release.
Before the project was halted in 2015, engineers estimated that EATR could travel 100 miles for every 150 pounds of biomass consumed.
2. Self-Repairing Houses
Consider soldiers constructing structures and fortifications out of lightweight scaffolds rather than plywood, two-by-fours, and heavy sandbags. The scaffolds will then begin to fill in with durable material of their own. When that material is damaged, it regrows exactly where it was.
That is the goal of DARPA’s Engineering Living Materials program: to develop building materials that can grow where they are needed and repair themselves when they are damaged. DARPA hopes to use similar technologies to create hybrid materials that can shape and support the growth of engineered cells as researchers make progress with 3D printed organs and tissues.
“Instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors that can be rapidly grown on-site using local resources.” And because the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage, according to project manager Justin Gallivan.
3. Blood Grown in a Laboratory
Blood pharming is the process of producing red blood cells in a laboratory rather than inside a human body. DARPA’s Blood Pharming program was designed to increase production efficiency while lowering the high costs associated with growing red blood cells.
If fully implemented, the program would have greatly increased access to transfusable blood for soldiers and hospitals worldwide, as well as reduced the risk of disease transmission during a transfusion.
According to a 2013 press release, the program was successful in lowering the cost of synthetic blood from more than $90,000 to less than $5,000 per unit, but no new information has been released since, and the program is not listed in recent budget documents.
4. Insect Cyborgs
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are popular, but they’re cumbersome and require people to design and assemble each component. What if there was a way to free up sensors on flying creatures?
DARPA’s spy bugs were developed as part of a 2006 project to implant transmitters in insects for surveillance purposes. Teams from the University of Michigan and Cornell University led the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems program.
Within a few years, researchers had created interfaces capable of controlling the actions of insects. If plain old spy bugs weren’t wild enough, the insects were eventually given nuclear power.
Cornell engineers unveiled a prototype of a radioactively powered transmitter for cyborg insects in 2009. Nickle-23 isotopes would provide enough power to any sensors or transmitters carried by the bugs while remaining non-toxic to humans.
5. PTSD Brain Implants
DARPA isn’t just interested in cool war-fighting gadgets. The agency also funds research into ways to mitigate the negative effects of war on soldiers.
According to a DARPA press release, the Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies program is tasked with developing “an implanted, closed-loop diagnostic and therapeutic system for treating, and possibly even curing, neuropsychiatric illness.”
Essentially, the program seeks to develop a brain implant that will aid soldiers suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, anxiety, substance abuse, and other issues.
Because of the implications of such a device, SUBNETS has enlisted the assistance of special ethics experts to assist them in developing a safe piece of neurotechnology.
6. Robotic Infantry Mules
Heavy lifting is one of the most significant threats to troops’ health and performance. Recognizing the impact that the weight of soldiers’ loads can have on them, DARPA collaborated with Boston Dynamics to develop the Legged Squad Support System.
The LS3 is designed to deploy with an infantry squad and is capable of carrying 400 pounds. According to DARPA’s website, the program’s goal is “to develop a robot that will go through the same terrain as the squad without interfering with the squad’s mission.”
7. Nuclear Powered Spaceship
DARPA also funds research into space travel. Project Orion is a 1958 program that sought to develop a new method of spaceship propulsion. This fictitious model of propulsion relied on nuclear bomb detonations to propel a craft forward, and it was said to be capable of reaching incredible speeds.
However, DARPA officials were concerned about the nuclear fallout, and when the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 prohibited nuclear weapon detonations in outer space, the project was shelved.
8. Mechanical Elephants
DARPA began researching vehicles in the 1960s that would allow troops and equipment to move more freely in Vietnam’s dense terrain.
Following in the footsteps of Hannibal, DARPA researchers determined that elephants might be the best tool for the job. They began one of DARPA’s most infamous projects: the search for a mechanical elephant. The end result would be servo-actuated legs capable of transporting heavy loads.
According to New Scientist, when the director of DARPA learned of the project, he immediately shut it down, hoping that Congress would not hear of it and cut the agency’s funding.
9. Synthetic Polio Virus
Concerns about biological weapons prompted DARPA to establish the “Unconventional Pathogen Countermeasures Program,” in the late 1990s. The program’s mission is to “develop and demonstrate defensive technologies that afford the greatest protection to uniformed warfighters and the defense personnel who support them, during U.S. military operations.”
DARPA failed to inform anyone that one of its “unconventional” projects would cost $300,000 to fund a trio of scientists who thought synthesizing polio would be a neat idea. They created the virus using the virus’s genome sequence, which was freely available online, and genetic material obtained from companies that sell made-to-order DNA.
The scientists then published their research — essentially a how-to manual — in the journal Science in 2002. Eckard Wimmer, a professor of molecular genetics and the project’s leader, defended the research, stating that he and his colleagues created the virus to send a message to terrorists that they may be able to create biological weapons without obtaining a naturally occurring virus.
This project would have been contentious at any time, but publishing it less than a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks was truly reckless, prompting shock headlines such as “A New Terror Risk?” and “Surfing for a Satan Bug.”
The scientific community as a whole dismissed it as an “inflammatory” stunt with no practical application. Polio would be ineffective as a terrorist bioweapon due to its lower infectious and lethal potential compared to many other pathogens. And, in most cases, obtaining a naturally occurring virus would be preferable to creating one from scratch. Smallpox and Ebola are the only exceptions, as they would be nearly impossible to synthesize from scratch using the same technique.
“It’s critically important to hold a national dialogue among biologists, health care experts, politicians, and the general public about the future of biological work with biological weapons implications,” said Steven Block, a Stanford University expert on biotechnology applications in biowarfare. “But publishing research like this is a poor way indeed to open the conversation.” Block later stated that the incident pushed discussions about how to properly defend against biological weapons back “at least three years,” as new congressional calls for regulation “had a chilling effect.”
10. Hydra, the Mothership of Drones
Hail Hydra! DARPA’s Hydra project, named after the multi-headed creature from Greek mythology, was announced in 2013 with the goal of developing an undersea network of platforms capable of being deployed for weeks or months in international waters. Submerged platforms would be capable of deploying drones both underwater and in the air. In other words, Hydra is a mothership for drones.
According to DARPA, the project’s rationale is as follows:
Even the most advanced vessel….can only be in one place at a time, making the ability to respond increasingly dependent on being ready at the right place at the right time. With the number of U.S. Navy vessels continuing to shrink due to planned force reductions and fiscal constraints, naval assets are increasingly stretched thin trying to cover vast regions of interest around the globe. To maintain advantage over adversaries, U.S. naval forces need a way to project key capabilities in multiple locations at once, without the time and expense of building new vessels to deliver those capabilities.
Bruce Berkowitz, a national security analyst and expert on underwater drones, believes the project is overly ambitious: “The concept of a hybrid submarine/aircraft carrier dates all the way back to the 1930s, when the French equipped the 3,000-ton Surcouf with a seaplane hangar, and the technology may be feasible. However, integrating [drones] operated from land and surface ships is a more likely solution.”
Another concern is that saturating international waters with subsea killer robot launch facilities could create unease in neighboring countries. “Pre-deploying large amounts of warfighting hardware, including ‘non-lethal’ autonomous weapons and possibly lethal ones as well, over broad areas of the Western Pacific, or any other waters well outside the recognized boundaries of U.S. territorial waters, is potentially provocative and offensive to China and other nations,” says Mark Gubrud of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “How would we react if China placed similar systems on the seabed offshore of the United States, or around various geographic locations where it is thought that American and Chinese forces might clash?”
DARPA IS ENVIRONMENT-FRIENDLY AND WANTS TO CLONE NATURE TO ATTACK
The CIA’s annual World Factbook, notes that “the United States is the single largest emitter of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels,” yet the Environmental Protection Agency’s “National Center for Environmental Innovation” is far from a DARPA-style organization. In 2003, it distributed a meager $737,500 in seven state-innovation grants. In comparison, DARPA spent approximately $3 billion on approximately 200 projects ranging from space weapons to unmanned aerial vehicles. However, just because the government is not investing in the projects of scientists eager to tackle environmental problems does not mean it is uninterested in environmental research. Quite the contrary. DARPA has taken up the mantle and is funding a rigorous research program aimed at developing novel methods of weaponizing nature.
As evidenced by their Vietnam-era mechanical elephant project and a recent grant to researchers developing a robotic canine called “Big Dog” for the Army, DARPA may be said to have an animal fetish, which may be reflected in various projects whose names evoke the ethos of the wild kingdom. They include the following:
WolfPack, a group (pack) of miniaturized, unattended ground sensors designed to work cooperatively to detect, identify, and jam enemy communications; Piranha, a project to “enable submarines to engage elusive maneuvering land and sea targets”; and Hummingbird Warrior, a program to develop a helicopter-like vertical take-off and landing unmanned air vehicle (UAV).
The agency also embraces natural imagery in its “Organic Air Vehicles in the Trees” project, which sounds downright “green,” despite the fact that it is actually a small unmanned aerial vehicle that will fly through forests, over hills, and through cities in search of adversaries.
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