ANAHEIM, Calif.—The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is approaching its golden anniversary, and there’s reason to celebrate. If we can trust the commemorative deck of cards they’re handing out at the DARPATech conference, the Pentagon’s most radical, forward-thinking scientists have accounted for no fewer than 52 major technical innovations since 1958. Check out the high-energy lasers on the four of diamonds, the night-vision goggles on the six of clubs, and the whizzing stealth fighter aircraft on the queen of hearts. And let’s not forget the agency’s trump card, here assigned to the jack of spades: Thirty-five years ago, DARPA helped create the earliest version of the Internet.
These days, the enormous exhibit hall at the center of the conference can be a confusing place. In one sense, I can’t help but feel complicit in a government PR blitz as I wander amid sleek models and demonstrations of the latest military technology. And yet, as a journalist, I hardly feel welcome at all. DARPA’s press office permits reporters just two hours a day to take notes and ogle the gizmos. It’s a lonely two hours at that: Many of the presenters have been warned not to interact with the media under any circumstances; one look at my double-sided, blood-orange badge, and they nervously turn away.
A few loose-lipped company reps can be cajoled into talking, but most of the projects seem so far-fetched and hypothetical that there’s little to explain. One display features nothing more than a brief artist’s rendering of a portable surgical robot called the trauma pod, which is supposed to perform complex medical operations in the field. Across the hall is a gray plastic model of an intriguing “heliplane,” a hybrid helicopter and fighter jet that seemed something like the military’s version of the liger. But will we ever see these exotic technologies in the flesh? Are they a few years away, or a few decades?
If some devices seem impossibly advanced, others come off as weirdly passé. The RPGNets system is designed to protect light tactical vehicles from rocket-powered grenades. Hanging from the ceiling is a giant net with a grenade tangled in the weave like a sockeye salmon. According to the display, this advanced research program aims to “leverage net technology” against enemy weapons by manipulating the size of the mesh and the diameter of the lines. Do we really need DARPA to invest in high-tech nets?
More interesting are the updates to projects presented in previous years. In 2004, DARPA marched out its “phraselator,” a device to help soldiers bark out simple commands in foreign languages. Today, these machines allow for comprehensible two-way communication. A new system designed at USC does real-time translation between a pair of users, in Arabic or Farsi. I watch a pair of grad students trade full sentences in different languages. A laptop transcribes, translates, and repeats their words aloud through a speaker. (The system isn’t perfect, but it seems to work much better than Google Translate.) The translation can also be performed over a network, which means that some day soon you might be able to dial up the service on your cell phone.
Meanwhile, research seems to have progressed on the brain-controlled prostheses that were introduced (in concept, at least) two years ago. At one display area, a pair of armless volunteers and a young veteran missing his right hand demonstrate some fancy new models. We don’t yet have bionic arms that hook up directly to the cortex, but one machine uses electrical signals from the muscle tissue remaining in a patient’s stump to drive a mechanical hand: After extended training, the veteran could open and close his metal grip by imagining the movements. Another makes use of a foot-operated control mechanism hidden in a normal-looking shoe.
I’m far less enthusiastic about the endless parade of new military robots that dominates the hall. Is it me, or have robots gotten a little played out in the last 10 years? A major portion of DARPA’s resources seem to go toward the development of ever-more-advanced unmanned aerial vehicles and four-legged land-rovers. We’ve got robots that can clamber up rocky hills, navigate around obstacles, and see in three dimensions. The StickyBot, inspired by wall-climbing lizards, can climb up smooth surfaces like glass windows, while its cousin adheres to rough stone or brick. I guess these are cool enough to look at, but we’ve all seen this kind of thing before. And why do we need wall-climbing lizard robots when we’ve got flying drones?
Animal locomotion does inspire one of my favorite devices—the simple and amazing PowerSwim. Worn over the lower legs of divers, the contraption uses a pair of oscillating fins connected by a spring to emulate the undulating movements of marine mammals. Video clips projected on a huge overhead screen show something that works a bit like an underwater bicycle: The swimmer propels himself forward by wiggling his legs back and forth at the knees. At a cost of less than $500, the PowerSwim seems destined for immediate placement in Skymall.
I’m so enchanted by the PowerSwim that I almost miss the insect cyborgs tucked away in the corner. The latest innovation from DARPA’s Office of Creepy Technologies comes from Dr. Amit Lal, who wants to use controllable flying insects for surveillance missions. So far, his teams of engineers have managed to implant electrodes into moths during the pupa stage of early development, with minimal tissue damage. Video monitors show the insects as fully grown adults that can be induced to flap their wings in any direction. They’re also working on a way to use the moth’s living body—its movements and metabolism—as a power source for the implant’s electronics.
DARPA’s government-financed mad-science programs originate with managers like Dr. Lal. Tomorrow, I’ll try to figure out how to get what must be one of the world’s most awesome jobs.
Before I leave for the day, I’d like to make a quick point about DARPA project titles, which—in keeping with the agency’s penchant for high-risk, high-reward endeavors—push the military’s mania for abbreviation to the extreme. Some of these acronyms are embarrassing failures. Take, for example, the Large Area Coverage Optical Search-while-Track & Engage system, or LACOSTE. This violates a cardinal rule of acronymy: You can’t skip words—like while and and—that might not fit into your pithy title. If DARPA were playing by the rules, they’d have to call their device LACOSWTAE. Another violator—the Human-carried Explosives Detection Stand-off System, or HEDSS.
It’s just as bad to slip meaningless words into a project title with the sole intention of making a nifty acronym. Take Lockheed Martin, which padded out the name of its sensor-laden airship program. They call it ISIS, short for “Integrated Sensor Is Structure.”
Some DARPA acronyms turn out to be real winners. Watch a video of the Magneto-Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition in action, and you’ll agree it deserves the title MAHEM. (In general, I think it’s OK to pull multiple letters from the beginning of the same word, as in “MAgneto-Hydrodynamic.” But this practice should not be abused—the MOrphable Networked ARCHitecture project, or MONARCH, clearly takes it too far.) I also like the tiny Dynamic Optical Tags, or DOTs, that help soldiers identify friendly units and download information on their surroundings.
My favorite DARPA abbreviation of the year belongs to a technology designed to ward off shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles. The Pulsed Fiber Laser Infrared Countermeasures program may not have a catchy nickname like MAHEM. But for sheer character, it’s hard to beat the good ol’ P-FLIRCM. Could that be onomatopoeia? There it goes again, blasting away at enemy targets—puh-flurr-cuhm, puh-flurr-cuhm, puh-flurr-cuhm …