Scientists and engineers from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency took over the Pentagon center courtyard last week, defying gray skies and a steady drizzle to demonstrate to future users here some of their most bleeding-edge work for national security.
Two of the Defense Department’s top technology leaders also were there to speak with media members about DARPA’s mission — Stephen P. Welby, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, and DARPA director Dr. Arati Prabhakar.
In individual tents situated neatly around the courtyard, DARPA program managers and staff showed off and explained more than 60 of the agency’s programs involving air systems, biology, counterterrorism, cyber, ground warfare, maritime systems, microsystems, space and the electromagnetic spectrum.
“DARPA really is the disruption engine behind our technology enterprise in the department,” Welby said in an interview with DoD News, “working on cutting-edge technologies that are going to fundamentally shape our future, and working to bring that future into today.”
‘Those Crazy Technologies’
In her remarks, Prabhakar said DARPA was at the Pentagon today because DARPA’s mission is about breakthrough technologies for national security.
“Today is the day that we bring some of those crazy technologies into the Pentagon [to] get them in front of our customers and our partners — people across all the military services and across DoD and the intelligence community,” she said.
DARPA cares about driving technology forward, the director added, “but it doesn’t really count until we get it across the finish line, and that’s what today is really all about.”
Prabhakar described some of the agency’s projects, including one that is in the process of making a connection with the services.
The Communications Under Extreme Radio Frequency Spectrum Conditions, or CommEx, program deals with the problem of communication systems for DoD aircraft. Link 16 is a military tactical data-exchange network used by the United States, NATO nations and others.
“Those are now vulnerable to adversary jamming and new kinds of jamming threats,” Prabhakar said, “and CommEx is an upgrade that’s now being inserted into Link 16 that will start giving those systems protection in a world in which the technology the adversary has keeps changing and becomes much harder for us to counter. We now have some answers to that.”
Bringing radically new technologies to DARPA Demo Day is an opportunity for program managers to talk to people about the kinds of new applications that might come from them, she said.
Behind every demo is an enormous amount of technical work that DARPA does by working with a broad, diverse exciting technical community around the country and sometimes in other parts of the world, the director said.
“Sometimes … we’re driving a brand new frontier, and then those technologies end up getting commercialized. Sometimes that’s a very important part of getting the impact we need out of our technologies,” she explained.
One example is a program called Microphysiological Systems, Prabhakar said — an example of a very advanced technology that’s starting to move into commercialization through university start-up companies.
MPS “is building cell cultures that emulate human organs, and they give us a platform that would allow us to test suspicious threat agents when we don’t want to test them on people,” she added. “It gives us a safe way to get much more realistic testing.”
Another example will be the DARPA Cyber Grand Challenge, to be held in Las Vegas in August just before the DEFCON 24 Hacking Conference there.
“We have created ‘a league of their own’ for machines to conduct cyber defense operations. It’s going to be the first time ever that teams are going to compete by turning their machines on and letting them fight it out in a capture-the-flag game just for machines to play,” Prabhakar said.
Doing that, she said, will help DARPA develop advanced cyber defense capabilities that will have enormous commercial applications — another way that DARPA will have access to the technologies.
“Participants in that competition include a lot of universities but also a couple of small companies,” she added. “One has posted on its website that it plans to make commercially available all the things it’s developing through the Cyber Grand Challenge.”
Advancing the technology and getting the commercial push is one part of what DARPA does when the commercial sector is aggressively driving technology, which is then available around the world, the director said.
DoD Secret Sauce
Another thing DARPA does in many programs is to grab leading-edge commercial technology and add DoD “secret sauce” to it. “By combining those we’re able to build systems that no one else on the planet can build,” she said.
An example is called Diverse Accessible Heterogeneous Integration, or DAHI, Prabhakar said, pulling a small wafer out of her pocket.
“This is leading-edge commercial silicon technology that is the best you can get around the world,” she said. “But very deeply integrated with this are small dies of very specialized gallium nitride or indium phosphide technology.”
When those specialized components are combined with that leading-edge technology, DARPA is able to build very compact systems. But even more importantly, the director said, “we’re going to be able to build systems that have technical performance way out ahead of what’s commercially possible.”