Pandemic, Defense Priorities Shape DARPA Activities
Dealing with current events and new threats line the path ahead for the agency.
New research areas and greater emphasis on existing sciences define the way ahead for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Longstanding areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum sciences and directed energy systems now are sharing the spotlight with antiviral research, space systems and operational biotechnology as the agency aims deeper into the new decade.
Some ongoing and future efforts were described by Dr. Peter Highnam, acting director of DARPA, at a media roundtable hosted by the Defense Writers Group. Among the new research areas highlighted by Highnam were work on COVID-19 solutions, both vaccines and treatments. He noted that investments into epidemic medicine made by DARPA 10 to 15 years ago were paying off now at the forefront of treatments for the coronavirus.
A few years ago, the Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT) program aimed to support troop readiness by identifying and responding to threats posed by suddenly emerging pathogens. That program also is feeding into efforts to ramp up a COVID-19 vaccine program rapidly, Highnam related. Other research into antibodies and pandemic protection also are being brought to bear against the coronavirus, and emphasis has been added to existing programs.
Many of these programs began under the aegis of protecting troops against known and theoretical biological threats and have been applied to public health needs. Other DARPA efforts focus on new and emerging defense threats, which Highnam said are all the more menacing because of the ability of adversaries to access advanced commercial technologies.
He listed the top future research areas, many of which have programs already underway, as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, electronics, space, directed energy, quantum sciences, operational biology and unmanned systems. AI is central to more than a third of DARPA programs, he noted, saying, “The intersection of AI technologies with others is now a given.”
Unmanned systems constitute key one area heavily dependent on AI. DARPA is doing extensive work for the Navy on a variety of vehicles that would require autonomy to operate and conduct missions. One effort, the No Manning Required Ship (NOMARS), seeks to design a ship from the keel up to operate without any crew onboard for long periods of time at sea.
AI also will be a major part of cyber research at DARPA. One area Highnam cited is massive configuration security, which is becoming more important with systems increasingly including equipment from different sources. Embedding hardware security in the chip design process and in-house attribution for cyber defense also are active research areas. Highnam described an ongoing bug bounty program—Finding Exploits to Thwart Tampering (FETT)—in which DARPA provides four different hardware designs online that participants are allowed to attempt to hack.
Space is increasing in importance as the U.S. Space Force spins up, and DARPA is applying AI and other elements to advance U.S. capabilities. Describing space as a place that almost demands autonomy and AI activities, Highnam offered that most DARPA programs have long-term origins. One satellite launched a few weeks ago is testing how to use microelectronic mechanical systems (MEMS) to change the mirror shape of an optical system and generate high-quality imagery. A large-scale effort, Blackjack, seeks to work with private industry on its low-earth-orbit (LEO) constellations to develop LEO applications for defense operations. This might lead to multispectral military systems based on commercial technologies, for example.
Operational biotechnology involves a range of activities designed to benefit military personnel under a number of different scenarios. Devices that pull drinking water from arid air at altitude or grow landing sites for helicopters in a matter of days are only part of the picture, Highnam said. New smart bandages that sense when to apply different chemical treatments to a wound to speed healing are under development, as are ways of maintaining a badly wounded individual in a static condition so the person could be transported to a hospital facility for emergency treatment. Even sleep deprivation from long-distance deployments or extended operations are DARPA research topics, Highnam allowed.