Origin of technologies
DARPA projects blend risk and reward in quest for the next big thing
- By Doug Beizer
- Aug 07, 2008
In the late 1960s, Lawrence Roberts helped
develop a new kind of computer network that
delivered information via packets. The new network
eventually matured to become the modern
Much of the work on the technology was done
when Roberts was chief scientist in the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the original name for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The new network became
ARPAnet and then the Internet.
In the early 1970s, Roberts founded Telnet to
apply the new technology to the commercial
market. Although DARPA has evolved in the
decades since Roberts left, the agency is still a
great place to get funding for research projects
that will benefit both the Defense Department
and the commercial world, he said.
"It was a very strong period in DARPA's history
where they were not constrained as much as
they are today," Roberts said. "But the philosophy
was pretty much the same as it is today in
that we wanted programs which had valuable
improvement potential for any particular technology.
In the network case, it was equally valuable
to the military and the commercial space."iROBOT'S SUCCESS STORY
Although developing technology as huge as the
Internet might be a long shot, work done at
DARPA still has the potential to become a
mainstream, highly used piece of technology.
When researchers at iRobot Corp. were
developing a portable robot designed to perform
dangerous missions, the concept seemed
like science fiction, said Chris Jones, a research
program manager at iRobot.
"The PackBot that today is considered a
proven piece of technology and is out there
doing great work was seen as cutting-edge and
advanced just a few years ago," Jones said.
Not surprisingly, the development of
PackBot began as a DARPA project.
"Less than 10 years ago, the PackBot concept
was something a lot of people didn't necessarily
know would come to fruition," he said. "And
here we are less than 10 years later, and it is out
there in very large numbers and being utilized
in a real way."
PackBot is rugged and light enough to be
deployed by a single person. Its interchangeable,
modular payload capabilities can be easily
adapted to a variety of missions.
Today iRobot has a new DARPA contract that researchers hope will also lead to an
accepted piece of technology. The project falls
under DARPA's chemical robots program. The
company is attempting to design a soft
robot capable of changing its shape to
squeeze through small openings.
"You might imagine a robot the size of a
soda can that can move across a room but
when it needs to, it could squeeze itself
through a hole in the wall the diameter of a
quarter," Jones said.
Researchers at the company hope to achieve
that goal by using advances in chemistry and
materials science. Previous attempts to make
flexible robots focused on mimicking biology or
simply modifying standard robot parts to be
smaller and more flexible.
"The key part of this is to not start from what
we know and just apply it in a different way, but
to really pull in advances in basic chemistry and
materials science," Jones said. "We want to see
what we can do in those areas and apply it to
building new classes of robots."
Typical for DARPA projects, iRobot is teaming
with partners in academia. In this case, the
company is working with the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
Pushing technology to its limits does have
risks. Jones said he acknowledges that many
research projects end up going nowhere.
Finding the next big technology requires
pushing the boundaries of what's known
Even though there are risks, if a project is
successful it can lead to large rewards.
"You're not going to have this high payoff in
the end if you're not willing to ? at an early
stage ? invest the resources," he
said. "The technologies DARPA invests in, if
they prove to be successful, will be very beneficial
to the Department of Defense."WARFIGHTER MIND-SET
Relating how new technology
will help warfighters today is a
key part of ensuring success at
DARPA. If the way a technology will help them
cannot be explained, it has little chance of gaining
A former DARPA director, George
Heilmeier, developed a series of questions
designed to evaluate proposals to the agency.
The questions focus on explaining how the
issue is addressed today, what difference the
new technology will make, and the estimated
costs and risks.
Mark McHenry, a former DARPA program
manager, said using the questions can help
evaluate project proposals.
"I would tell people, if you don't have a good
answer for these questions, if you can't tell them
exactly what you'd do with the money, if you
can't tell them exactly why you'll be able to succeed
where others failed, they just won't fund
you," he said.
The agency is flooded with
good ideas from smart people,
"They're willing to risk, but
there is a limit," he said. "It has
to be doable."
McHenry is now president of Shared
Spectrum Co., which is developing new radio
technology under a DARPA contract.
Shared Spectrum won a contract in 2005
for the neXt Generation Communications
(XG) program. It is developing technology for
military radios to dynamically access spectrum
to establish and maintain communications.
The goal is to demonstrate the ability to
access 10 times more spectrum with near-zero
setup time. The technology also automatically
resolves conflicts in operational spectrum
"You put a spectrum analyzer or spectrum
measurement device in each radio," McHenry
said. "The radio scans around and looks for a
channel that's not being used and just uses it
temporarily. The advantage is you don't have
to dedicate spectrum to every radio."
That leads to a hundredfold improvement
in capacity and reduction in cost for the military,
The military is interested in the technology
in part because of the massive amounts of live
video being delivered by unmanned ground
and air systems. Real-time video uses 40 to
100 times more bandwidth than voice communications.
With the new technology,
bandwidth would be put
to better use.
"They can't just give every
[unmanned aerial vehicle] its
own channel," McHenry said. "By
using this technology, they can
give five channels, for example, to
all the robots in Baghdad, and
then the robots themselves
would take turns using the channels
when they need it."
The technology is undergoing
flight testing now, and the software
could be installed on existing
military radios in a matter of
Companies should also keep in
mind that DARPA projects are
often much more focused than
standard DOD projects, said
George Stone, Alion Science and
Technology Corp.'s vice president
for program management, modeling
"With DARPA projects, we're a lot more
focused on a specific area, whereas when
you're supporting a customer you often have
many areas that you're required to respond
to," he said.
Alion partnered with other companies on
DARPA's Real Time Adversarial Intelligence
and Decision Making project.
Alion focused on information fusion and
data-mining techniques for that project.
"We use simulations of enemy insurgent
activities in urban environments and then try
to build models of how commanders might
have a tool that would let them predict where
the enemy is and what they're doing," Stone
Like the shared spectrum technology,
DARPA projects often focus on advancing
existing technology, Roberts said.
Roberts' current company, Anagran Co., is
developing technology that optimizes the flow
of data over a network. Anagran's optimized
flow-based approach to IP traffic management
improves video downloads, voice calls and
DOD officials are interested in the technology
because it will help in areas where
warfighters depend on limited bandwidth via
a satellite connection.
"We can now improve satellite communications
by a 100-to-1 ratio as compared to what
is possible today," Roberts said.
So DARPA likes to fund projects that have
good commercial potential.
"Our contract basically has a clause that
says if we don't make it commercially available
then the DOD gets the rights to make that
happen," Roberts said. "But for us that's not an
issue because it should have some commercial
value as well."Doug Beizer (email@example.com) is a staff
writer with Washington Technology.