DARPA Demo Day: a Glimpse of the Expanding Technological Frontier

More than 80 exhibits vied for the attention of members of the Department of Defense (DoD) at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Demo Day 2016 in May in Arlington, Virginia.

The exhibits were from among DARPA’s “extraordinary range of technologies and scientific domains,” according to DARPA Director Arati Probhakar. Demo Day attendees viewed innovative technologies and military systems at various stages of development and readiness. They “spanned every military domain from undersea to space and across all of DARPA’s strategic focus areas, from sensors and microsystems to cyber and spectrum to biological technologies and counterterrorism,” according to DARPA’s Web site. DARPA has been the impetus for breakthrough technologies for national security for more than 50 years. “Today’s investments will give rise to capabilities that will protect the United States and project its interests for decades to come,” says Probhakar. “Behind every demo is an enormous amount of technical work that DARPA does by working with a broad, diverse exciting technical community around the country and sometimes in other parts of the world, Probhakar explains. “Sometimes, we’re driving a brand new frontier, and then those technologies end up getting commercialized. Sometimes that’s a very important part of getting the impact we need out of our technologies.”2

The products exhibited were at various stages of maturity. Some had been adopted by the military services and are in use; others are at various stages of the technological development process. The displayed products were categorized as follows:1

• Air: (unmanned aerial systems, advanced hypersonics, improved human-machine collaboration, and supervised autonomy).

• Biology: (outpacing infectious diseases, accelerating progress in synthetic biology, and exploring new neurotechnologies).

• Counterterrorism: (mitigating terrorists’ capabilities through inventive reconnaissance, big-data analysis, and technologies that advance understanding of social behavior).

• Cyber: (automated cyber-defense systems, hack-resistant software and networks, and real-time visualization of cyberspace).

• Ground Warfare: (manned and unmanned systems that bolster squad-level capabilities such as reach, situational awareness. and maneuverability).

• Maritime: (unmanned surface and undersea systems, novel communications and positioning technologies, and distributed capabilities).

• Microsystems: (communications, imaging, information processing and physical security through revolutionary microelectronic, microelectromechanical, and photonic devices).

• Seeds of Surprise: (expanding the technological frontier by applying deep mathematics, inventing new chemistries, processes and materials, and harnessing quantum physics).

• Space: (robotics, new launch systems, and satellite architectures, and groundbreaking technologies for space situational awareness).

• Spectrum: (ensuring dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum in congested and contested environments through new materials and tools; faster chips; and smarter, more agile mobile networks).

Potential for the Fire Service

Many of the technologies, innovations, and products that originated with DARPA have benefited not only the military and defense segments of our government but the fire and emergency services and general public as well. Examples of programs with such potential include the following.

Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS)[including post-traumatic stress]

Source: Dr. Justin Sanchez. DARPA’s objective is to generate the knowledge and technology required to deliver relief to patients with otherwise intractable neuropsychological illness. The SUBNETS vision differs from current therapeutic approaches in that it seeks to create an implanted, closed-loop diagnostic and therapeutic system for treating, and possibly even curing, neuropsychological illness. Because of plasticity, researchers are optimistic that SUBNETS-developed technology will make it possible to train or treat the brain to restore normal functionality following injury or the onset of neuropsychological illness. The goal is to provide for investigators and clinicians an unprecedented ability to record, analyze, and stimulate multiple brain regions for therapeutic purposes. The program plan calls for research to be conducted along a schedule of prescribed milestones, culminating in technology demonstrations and submission of devices for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If successful, SUBNETS will lead to informed and precise neurotechnological therapy to produce major improvements in quality of life for service members and veterans with neuropsychological illness who have very few options with existing therapies. SUBNETS and related DARPA neuroscience efforts are informed by members of an independent ethical, legal, and social Implications (ELSI) panel. Communications with ELSI panelists supplement the oversight provided by institutional review boards that govern human clinical studies and animal use. SUBNETS is part of a broader portfolio of programs within DARPA that support President Obama’s brain initiative.3


Above: Z-Man climbing aid. Courtesy of DARPA.

“Geckskin” Biologically Inspired Climbing Aids

Source: Dr. John Main. “Geckskin,” an output of the Z-Man program, is a synthetically fabricated reversible adhesive inspired by geckos, spiders, and small animals. The Z-Man program aims to develop biologically inspired climbing aids to enable warfighters to scale vertical walls constructed from typical building materials while carrying a full combat load, and without the use of ropes or ladders. A proof-of-concept demonstration in 2012 showed that a 16-square-inch sheet of Geckskin adhering to a vertical glass wall could support a static load of up to 660 pounds. Z-Man seeks to build synthetic versions of these biological systems, optimize them for efficient human climbing, and use them as novel climbing aids. Separately, DARPA also supported development of the gecko-inspired “Gecko Nanoadhesive,” developed by Draper Laboratory. That product has gone through further development throughout the duration of the DARPA Z-Man program and continues to be the focus of work at DARPA.4

Low-Cost Thermal Imager – Manufacturing (LCTI-M) Program

Source: Dr. Jay Lewis. This program seeks to enable widespread use of infrared imaging technology by individual warfighters and by inserting it into small systems. Infrared imaging can provide valuable information in environments with severely degraded visibility and to enable the capture and transmission of electronic images for intelligence analysis and other critical situations. Thermal imaging devices can have enormous implications for defense and national security. Their small size and low power requirements enable the imagers to support extended missions in many small portable systems. If very low-cost, high-performance thermal imagers can be made available, every vehicle, surveillance device, and dismounted soldier will have the capability for situational awareness and be able to engage and execute close combat in all levels of illumination, adverse weather, and battlefield-obscurant conditions. The LCTI-M program seeks new opportunities for homeland security and commercial applications. The goal of LCTI-M is to develop a wafer scale manufacturing process that will result in a camera on a chip, making thermal imagers affordable, accessible, and available to every warfighter. The objectives are to (1) demonstrate wafer scale imager modules with a yield greater than 80 percent, ( 2) reduce cost by more than 10 times, (3) reduce form-factor suitable for handheld platforms, and (4) demonstrate pixel scalability to 12 microns while maintaining state-of-the-art performance. Significant transition opportunities available in soldier systems–such as helmet-mounted infrared, battlefield coordination and intelligence using handheld device connectivity, and identification of target signatures and of friend or foe–lead to a new paradigm in tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Additionally, low-cost IR camera products may provide widespread use in platforms for persistent surveillance.5

The Exosuit

This soft robotic exoskeleton was constructed to help reduce fatigue in soldiers carrying heavy loads over long distances. A series of cables, pulled by a motor, helps the legs to walk with less effort from the soldier. The prototype weighs 10 pounds.6

Communications under Extreme Radio Frequency Spectrum Conditions (CommEx)

The focus is the communication systems for DoD aircraft. Link 16 is a military tactical data-exchange network used by the United States, NATO nations, and several others, and it is vulnerable to jamming threats. CommEx is an upgrade inserted into Link 16 to protect the system in a world where adversary technologies are constantly changing.2

Microphysiological Systems

Photo courtesy of DARPA

Microphysiological Systems (MPS)

This very advanced technology is starting to move into commercialization through university start-up companies. MPS will develop a platform that uses engineered human tissue to mimic human physiological systems. The interactions that candidate drugs and vaccines have with these “mimic” systems will accurately predict the safety and effectiveness that the countermeasures would have if administered to people. The platform developed is expected to increase the quality and potentially the number of novel therapies that move through the pipeline and into clinical care.

Microphysiological Systems

Recent DARPA research has shown the ability to accelerate production of millions of doses of vaccine using novel plant-based methods. But clinical trials for vaccines and drugs can’t be initiated without preclinical evidence of their safety in people. Human safety and drug performance is not always effectively predicted through animal testing and the Defense Department must rapidly develop and field safe and effective medical countermeasures against biological threats to warfighters. To create a pathway for fielding safe and effective countermeasures, DARPA has launched the Microphysiological Systems program. MPS will develop a platform that uses engineered human tissue to mimic human physiological systems. The interactions that candidate drugs and vaccines have with these mimics will accurately predict the safety and effectiveness that the countermeasures would have if administered to people. The resulting platform should increase the quality and potentially the number of novel therapies that move through the pipeline and into clinical care. DARPA photo

MPS is building cell cultures that emulate human organs, providing a platform for testing suspicious threat agents instead of testing on people. 2

DARPA Cyber Grand Challenge

DARPA is sponsoring the Cyber Grand Challenge in Las Vegas in August. “We have created ‘a league of their own’ for machines to conduct cyber defense operations. It’s going to be the first time ever that teams are going to compete by turning their machines on and letting them fight it out in a capture-the-flag game just for machines to play,” Prabhakar explains.2 This, she adds, will help DARPA develop advanced cyber defense capabilities that will have enormous commercial applications. Challenge participants will include universities and some small companies.


1. http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-06-11

2.  http://1.usa.gov/1NrfVng

3. http://www.darpa.mil/program/systems-based-neurotechnology-for-emerging-therapies

4. http://www.darpa.mil/program/z-man

5. http://www.darpa.mil/program/low-cost-thermal-imager-manufacturing

6.  http://bit.ly/1TLYP0v

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.

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