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DARPA’s Top 10 Stories of 2016

DARPA drone project

Image from DARPA UAV project

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has compiled a “Top 10” list of programs based on the number of followers’ visits to the DARPA Web site in 2016. These programs are among the approximate 250 programs that span dozens of fields that range from quantum metamaterials and machine learning to neurotechnology and unmanned system autonomy, according to the agency. In 2016, the DARPA Web site, received 27 million page views, a 35 percent increase over last year, DARPA reports.

The list follows.

10. “A Camera That Can See Unlike Any Imager Before It” (Sept.16, 2016)
The sensor pixel is about the size of a red blood cell. “Envision a million of these pixels—a megapixel’s worth—in an array that covers a thumbnail; mentally dive down onto the surface of the semiconductor hosting all of these pixels and marvel at each pixel’s associated tech-mesh of more than 1,000 integrated transistors, which provide each and every pixel with a tiny reprogrammable brain of its own.” This is DARPA’s vision of its new Reconfigurable Imaging (ReImagine) program.

 9. Keeping a Watchful Eye on Low-Flying Unmanned Aerial Systems in Cities (Sept. 13, 2016)
DARPA’s Aerial Dragnet program is searching for innovative technologies to provide persistent, wide-area surveillance of all unmanned air systems (UAS) operating below 1,000 feet in a large city. The goal is to map small UAS in urban terrain. Although the program’s focus is on protecting military troops operating in urban settings overseas, it could ultimately find civilian applications to help protect U.S. metropolitan areas from UAS-enabled terrorist threats, DARPA points out.

 8. “DARPA Goes ‘Meta’ with Machine Learning for Machine Learning” (June 17, 2016)
The goal of the Data-Driven Discovery of Models (D3M) program is to enable non-experts to construct complex empirical models through automation of large parts of the model-creation process. If successful, DARPA says, researchers using D3M tools will effectively have access to an army of “virtual data scientists.”

 7.Mining Everyday Technologies to Anticipate Possibilities” (March 11, 2016)
This “Improv” initiative is directed at protecting our nation’s security by engaging experts across multiple disciplines to view the commercial tech marketplace from the perspective of potential adversaries looking to improvise with widely available technologies to create new and unanticipated security risks. DARPA is challenging the experts “to view with an inventor’s eye and imagine how the highly sophisticated components of easily purchased, relatively benign technologies of off-the shelf equipment developed for the transportation, construction, agricultural, and other commercial sectors can be modified or combined to create unanticipated security threats.

 6. “New DARPA Grand Challenge to Focus on Spectrum Collaboration” (March 23, 2016)
This newest DARPA Grand Challenge, Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2), seeks to redefine the conventional spectrum management roles of humans and machines to maximize the flow of radio frequency (RF) signals. Over the next three years, DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office will hold a series of competitive events–the agency’s next grand challenge, the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2). DARPA explains: “The current policy of managing access to the spectrum by dividing the spectrum into rigid, exclusively licensed bands does not adapt to the dynamics of supply and demand, and so it cannot exploit the full potential capacity of the spectrum.” In SC2, competitors will reimagine a new, more efficient wireless paradigm in which radio networks autonomously collaborate to dynamically determine how the spectrum can be used most efficiently moment to moment. SC2 teams will develop this breakthrough capability by employing recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, and the expanding sophistication of software-defined radios, according to DARPA. Teams will be rewarded for developing smart systems that collaboratively, rather than competitively, adapt in real time to today’s fast-changing, congested spectrum environment. Finalists in the preliminary SC2 competitions in late 2017 and late 2018 will compete in Dec. 2019 for $3.75 million in cash prizes. For more information, visit

5. “Hallmark Envisions Real-Time Space Command and Control” (June 17, 2016)
This is DARPA’s first of two planned efforts under its new Hallmark program that have as their overarching goal providing breakthrough capabilities in U.S. space command and control. The Hallmark program is designed to help commanders overseeing our nation’s critical space assets to overcome the associated technical and strategic challenges.

 4. “‘Mayhem’” Declared Preliminary Winner of Historic Cyber Grand Challenge” (Aug. 4, 2016)
A computer system, named Mayhem, designed by the ForAllSecure team of Pittsburgh-based researchers won the 2016 DARPA Cyber Grand Challenge. The event, in which seven teams competed for close to $4 million in prizes, marked the close of an intensive three-year program designed “to spark a revolution in automated cyber defense,” DARPA says.

 3. “FLA Program Takes Flight” (Feb.12, 2016)
The initial phase of DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program was deemed an encouraging success, says the agency. “They may not have zoomed flawlessly around obstacles … but the sensor-loaded quadcopters that recently got tested in a cluttered hangar in Massachusetts did manage to edge their way around obstacles and achieve their target speeds of 20 meters per second. Moreover, the quadcopters did all this independently without anyone driving them … and, of course, they had the additional achievement of being real.”

 2. “Boosting Synaptic Plasticity to Accelerate Learning” (March 16, 2016)
The goal of the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) program is to advance the pace and effectiveness of cognitive skills training through the precise activation of peripheral nerves that can, in turn, promote and strengthen neuronal connections in the brain. This objective challenges a long-held notion that only the brain can facilitate learning and that the brain tells the peripheral nervous system what to do.

 1. “DARPA Announces VTOL X-Plane Phase 2 Design” (March 3, 2016)
DARPA’s VTOL Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane) program aims to overcome the challenges involved in designing aircraft with improved vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities. Dozens of attempts to increase top speed without sacrificing range, efficiency, or the ability to do useful work have failed in one way or another. Innovative cross-pollination between fixed-wing and rotary-wing technologies and developing and integrating novel subsystems to enable radical improvements in vertical and cruising flight capabilities have been shown to be important steps toward the overall goal. DARPA awarded the Phase 2 contract for VTOL X-Plane to Aurora Flight Sciences.

A full list of DARPA’s updates is available at


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Mary Jane DittmarMARY JANE DITTMAR is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager of FDIC. Before joining the magazine in January 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’ degree in English/journalism and a master’ degree in communication arts.