The US Defence Advanced Projects Agency has developed some of the advanced technology in the world, including the Internet and it’s still at the cutting edge of research, with some of the most advanced – and sometimes wackiest – research going.
After the Second World War, the US and Russia were competing in the race to get into space. In 1957, the Russians unleashed a surprise by launching Sputnik – the first ever satellite. Just half a metre across, Sputnik orbited the Earth emitting radio bleeps which could be heard by amateur radio enthusiasts all over the planet. To the Americans, this was the shock of the century. Sputnik sailed over them every 90 minutes, a constant reminder of Russian technological superiority. America had fallen behind because their national science development was in a mess because of squabbling between the Army, Navy and Air Force. President Eisenhower responded by founding DARPA as a single organisation to find and develop the most advanced new technology for defence purposes.
Compared to the Pentagon, the US military headquarters (and the largest office building in the world with more than 23,000 people, DARPA has a staff of around 300. The DARPA approach is to find wild ideas and pursue them as far as they will go. They accept that sometimes their efforts will not pay off, and its this freedom to fail which means they can attempt things that nobody else would dare.
So what has DARPA been involved in?
The Saturn V rocket – used by NASA that put a man on the moon and restored the US lead in the space race
The Internet – When Bob Taylor walked into his new office in1965, he found three computers on his desk, each connected to a different network. Taylor was head of DARPA’s computing section, and he realised that the three networks were completely different and could not communicate with each other. What was needed was something which would join them together, a sort of inter-network network. He quickly persuaded his boss to give him money for the project, and within four years the new network was born. It grew rapidly, and became the Internet.
Computer Chips – A Multi Project Wafer is not a type of biscuit -It’s a revolutionary way of makingcomputer chips. Microprocessors,or silicon chips, are at the heart of all modern electronics such as mobile phones, MP3 players and computers. They are also vital for guided missiles and other military hardware, and in the197o’s they were getting more complex and expensive. A block of dozens of chips are made at the same time in sheets called wafers – DARPA pioneered the method of having several different chips made by different companies on the same wafer. This made them much cheaper, paving the way for all the low-cost electronics we now take for granted.
Invisible Aircraft – The biggest threat to aircraft is radar which can spot them from hundreds of miles away. DARPA was set the challenge of making aircraft vanish from radar screens. Radar bounces a focused beam of radio energy off an aircraft and detecting the return signal. DARPA scientists knew that certain shapes were better at scattering radar energy away from the receiver, and they set about building an aircraft to take advantage of this. The end result was the F-117 Nighthawk, the first ‘stealth’ aircraft. Its faceted shape reflects radar beams away from the source. It is also coated with special radar absorbing material basically paint containing small metal particles. It’s ugly and hard to fly but to radar, it’s invisible.
Portable Translators – When you join the Army you can get sent anywhere at short notice – but how do you cope with the language? A US Navy doctor in Kuwait found that he could communicate better with his Arab patients using sound files of common phrases (‘take two of these tablets every four hours’) stored on his laptop. The idea was taken up by DARPA which then funded the development of the Phraselator – a pocket-sized device that doesn’t just play stock phrases but also has built-in voice recognition. You just speak into the Phraselator and it can translate the request into one of several languages.
Unmanned Planes – Early unmanned aircraft were really just big radio-controlled models or normal aircraft modified for remote control. DARPA developed the concept of robot spy planes with a much longer endurance in the air. Because they never tire on long missions, this type of aircraft is especially useful for keeping a watch over borders searching for insurgents in wide open spaces. DARPA developed an unmanned aircraft called the Gnat. The Gnat then evolvedInto the Predator,which was highly successful in supporting allied troops. Unmanned aircraft are also used for scientific research everywhere from the tropics to Antarctica.
Story courtesy from IET’s Flipside