Cuts in defense spending may be threatening readiness and modernization, but they haven’t stopped the Defense Department’s cadre of scientists and engineers from thinking big about the future.
Arati Prabhakar, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, said the researchers who work for her may be focused on national security, but “they are on a mission to change the world.”
Speaking to a packed house of industry technology executives Nov. 19 at an event hosted by the Northern Virginia Technology Council, Prabhakar outlined several major DARPA initiatives she said hold great promise for everything from health care to space flight and cybersecurity.
The DARPA mission is to drive technology innovation with a purpose, “even when these technologies raise uncomfortable questions,” Prabhakar said.
One such effort involves brain control — not the type of mind control you might read about in conspiracy theories, but the kind that leverages microprocessor technologies to help the paralyzed control prosthetic limbs.
Prabhakar showed a short video clip highlighting the success of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. In the video, researchers were able to help a victim of severe brain trauma gain control of an advanced arm prosthetic using their minds. The company that designed that technology has since requested approval from the Food and Drug Administration to make the prosthetic system available commercially.
“There is absolutely a DARPA brain program,” Prabhakar said, adding one of the latest research efforts involves finding a way to repair a particular memory dysfunction that can occur during traumatic brain injury. “Perhaps there is a way to link directly to brain signals,” she said.
And if DARPA scientists one day figure out how to tap into the brain, Prabhakar thinks there may be a way to leverage what is learned to improve cybersecurity.
“Really, all we know how to do is patch and pray,” she said.
The other major program driving a lot of activity at DARPA involves the military’s desire to maintain regular, cost-effective access to outer space. DOD currently depends on space for weapons guidance, navigation, reconnaissance and communications. But that access is being challenged by other nations also developing space capabilities and by the high cost to launch payloads into space.
“We’re imagining a different future for space,” Prabhakar said. “Today if you want to put even a small satellite into orbit, it can cost tens of millions of dollars [and] take years to schedule from a fixed site. We’re imagining a future where you can schedule launch on a 24-hour call-up from any runway around the world.”
DARPA’s solution to such a monumental challenge is its experimental space plane program, which seeks to design a reusable space plane capable of putting satellites or other systems weighing between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds on orbit for as little as $5 million.
One of the main research objectives for the space plane is to be able to build a vehicle capable of traveling to space 10 times in 10 days, at speeds greater than Mach 10. The program would complement a current DARPA program already researching satellite launch systems.
Prabhakar played a video of the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access, depicting a conventional military jet launching a missile carrying a 100-pound satellite into orbit for less than $1 million per launch.
Prabhakar is also leading a research effort to better manage space flight and increase the ability of the military to track the hundreds of thousands of objects that are currently flying around in low-earth orbit. Those objects, consisting of everything from defunct satellites to smaller items of manmade space trash, pose a potential danger to people on the ground as well as to new spacecraft.
“Today, there’s already about a trillion dollars worth of assets in space. How do you keep track of all of that,” Prabhakar said.
DARPA recently completed work on a space surveillance telescope in New Mexico that allows the military to see and track very dim objects across large swaths of sky, she said. “We’re imagining a future where space traffic control becomes a real-time capability the way that air traffic control is today.”
The Obama administration has requested $2.8 billion in funding for DARPA in fiscal year 2014.