From Dominating in Synthetic Biology to Fielding Undersea Drones, DARPA Sets Future Priorities
The notion of nefarious scientists re-engineering the genetics of living organisms to then weaponize their new specimens has some researchers jostling for the upper hand, including those at the U.S. Defense Department’s main research agency.
Research in synthetic biology is one of the key focus areas for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and highlighted in its biennial report, “Breakthrough Technologies for National Security.” The report was publicly released today to highlight projects aimed at tackling problems arising from unprecedented trends brought about by disturbing technical, economic and geopolitical shifts that threaten U.S. preeminence and stability.
“One of the reasons why we’re focusing on biology; when I say we see the seeds of technological surprise in that area, that’s exactly what I mean,” says DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar. “Hugely powerful technologies are bubbling out of that research.”
“Here at DARPA, when we think about the global factors in national security that shape our work, we tend to think of them in two categories: ongoing challenges from terrorism and violent extremism … and emerging challenges from nation states that now have shifting ambitions, and in some cases, they have quite powerful military capabilities,” Prabhakar says. “These are enormous forces that have continued to evolve over the last couple of decades, and in many regards, I think, are much more of a concern than ever before.”
The report highlights the agency’s focus on eight critical areas that will force both the agency and the U.S. military overall to “rethink complex military systems,” says Steven Walker, DARPA's deputy director.
“The pace at which we can develop and field new military systems is actually really important for who wins the next war,” Walker says.
Agency researchers are working on revolutionary redesigns of existing technologies, such as undersea drones that can remain on the ocean floor for years and be triggered only when needed, Walker says. They can be used to detect and track enemy submarines and conduct continuous antisubmarine warfare to support the U.S. Navy with distributed technologies anywhere and over huge maritime areas—all at a fraction of the cost of current submarine assets.
Additionally, DARPA is driven by a need to master the information explosion and create a new trajectory for cybersecurity. “Today, the way we pursue cybersecurity, all we have is patch and pray,” Prabhakar says. “And we should all be doing it because that actually is better than not doing it. But I think there’s a deep-seeded sense in [the Defense Department], and more broadly across the economy, that that is not going to keep up with the pace at which cyber vulnerabilities are growing.”
One solution might be found in the DARPA-funded Memex program, which can conduct searches on the deep Web not indexed by commercial search engines and automatically map patterns across a vast number of websites. It has helped law enforcement fight human trafficking, for example, and can search hundreds of thousands of medical journals and papers in dozens of languages, analyze the information, regroup it and present findings in an effort to help find a cure for cancer.
Another solution might emerge from DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge that seeks to automate cyberdefense.
“Invulnerability is not a future state,” Prabhakar says. “We’re kidding ourselves. Human beings are so creative. But a significant advantage? Yes, I think that is something we can achieve by using these tools and techniques but also having the people who know how to use them to great effect.”
Additional work in the biology field includes efforts to curtail infectious diseases. “It could be something as simple as a seasonal flu that affects troops readiness or it could be situations like Ebola, where that kind of devastating infectious disease actually threatens the stability of fragile states,” Prabhakar says. “And even worse, of course, it could be a future in which terrorists or others have the ability to weaponize infectious disease.”
Agency projects include deep mathematics, inventing new chemistries, processes and materials, harnessing quantum physics and missile defense solutions to lessen both the cost and time it takes to plan launches.
“A major focus on our space investments is a realization that we are extremely reliant on space,” Prabhakar says. “It’s so valuable, we really can’t fight the way that we’re trained to fight today without those space assets.”
Federal agencies have grown to rely heavily on advances made in the private sector, especially since two private capital dollars today are invested in research and development for every one federal dollar, she says. “That used to be the other way around. That’s really good for the country and the economy, but it means that if we’re going to be successful in this next offset strategy, we are going to want to aggressively engage with a broader technical community than just the one the DOD normally works with.”
DARPA’s fiscal 2015 budget of $2.9 billion reflects a meager, but steady, increase that has given the agency some stability. Sequestration had a drastic impact on operations. Between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2013, DARPA’s budget declined 20 percentage points, with eight of those points attributed to sequestration in fiscal 2013, she says.
“What has happened in the last two fiscal years has been a very important stabilization of the budget. We have not recovered to presequestration levels, but it’s been the very slight increases the last few years that have been incredibly important to have that stability.”
But because of the last sequestration round, the agency did not “start some new programs as quickly as we would have liked, and there were ongoing programs we elected to terminate before final milestones,” Prabhakar says.
“While there has never been a single year where the cut was a death blow to our mission, this is really about corrosion.”