What is DARPA?

Introduction

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defence responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military.

Originally known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the agency was created on 07 February 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik 1 in 1957. By collaborating with academic, industry, and government partners, DARPA formulates and executes research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science, often beyond immediate US military requirements.

DARPA-funded projects have provided significant technologies that influenced many non-military fields, such as computer networking and the basis for the modern Internet, and graphical user interfaces in information technology.

DARPA is independent of other military research and development and reports directly to senior Department of Defence management. DARPA comprises approximately 220 government employees in six technical offices, including nearly 100 programme managers, who together oversee about 250 research and development programmes.

The name of the organisation first changed from its founding name, ARPA, to DARPA, in March 1972, changing back to ARPA in February 1993, then reverted to DARPA in March 1996.

Mission

Currently, their mission statement is “to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security”.

Brief History

1958 to 1969

The creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was authorised by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 for the purpose of forming and executing research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science, and able to reach far beyond immediate military requirements, the two relevant acts being the Supplemental Military Construction Authorisation (Air Force) (Public Law 85-325) and Department of Defence Directive 5105.15, in February 1958.

Its creation was directly attributed to the launching of Sputnik and to US realisation that the Soviet Union had developed the capacity to rapidly exploit military technology. Initial funding of ARPA was $520 million. ARPA’s first director, Roy Johnson, left a $160,000 management job at General Electric for an $18,000 job at ARPA. Herbert York from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was hired as his scientific assistant.

Johnson and York were both keen on space projects, but when NASA was established later in 1958 all space projects and most of ARPA’s funding were transferred to it. Johnson resigned and ARPA was repurposed to do “high-risk”, “high-gain”, “far out” basic research, a posture that was enthusiastically embraced by the nation’s scientists and research universities. ARPA’s second director was Brigadier General Austin W. Betts, who resigned in early 1961. He was succeeded by Jack Ruina who served until 1963. Ruina, the first scientist to administer ARPA, managed to raise its budget to $250 million. It was Ruina who hired J.C.R. Licklider as the first administrator of the Information Processing Techniques Office, which played a vital role in creation of ARPANET, the basis for the future Internet.

Additionally, the political and defence communities recognised the need for a high-level Department of Defence organisation to formulate and execute R&D projects that would expand the frontiers of technology beyond the immediate and specific requirements of the Military Services and their laboratories. In pursuit of this mission, DARPA has developed and transferred technology programmes encompassing a wide range of scientific disciplines that address the full spectrum of national security needs.

From 1958 to 1965, ARPA’s emphasis centred on major national issues, including space, ballistic missile defence, and nuclear test detection. During 1960, all of its civilian space programs were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the military space programmes to the individual services.

This allowed ARPA to concentrate its efforts on the Project Defender (defence against ballistic missiles), Project Vela (nuclear test detection), and Project AGILE (counterinsurgency R&D) programmes, and to begin work on computer processing, behavioural sciences, and materials sciences. The DEFENDER and AGILE programs formed the foundation of DARPA sensor, surveillance, and directed energy R&D, particularly in the study of radar, infrared sensing, and x-ray/gamma ray detection.

ARPA at this point (1959) played an early role in Transit (also called NavSat) a predecessor to the Global Positioning System (GPS). “Fast-forward to 1959 when a joint effort between DARPA and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory began to fine-tune the early explorers’ discoveries. TRANSIT, sponsored by the Navy and developed under the leadership of Dr. Richard Kirschner at Johns Hopkins, was the first satellite positioning system.”

During the late 1960s, with the transfer of these mature programmes to the Services, ARPA redefined its role and concentrated on a diverse set of relatively small, essentially exploratory research programmes. The agency was renamed the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1972, and during the early 1970s, it emphasized direct energy programmes, information processing, and tactical technologies.

Concerning information processing, DARPA made great progress, initially through its support of the development of time-sharing (all modern operating systems rely on concepts invented for the Multics system, developed by a cooperation among Bell Labs, General Electric and MIT, which DARPA supported by funding Project MAC at MIT with an initial two-million-dollar grant).

DARPA supported the evolution of the ARPANET (the first wide-area packet switching network), Packet Radio Network, Packet Satellite Network and ultimately, the Internet and research in the artificial intelligence fields of speech recognition and signal processing, including parts of Shakey the robot. DARPA also funded the development of the Douglas Engelbart’s NLS computer system and The Mother of All Demos; and the Aspen Movie Map, which was probably the first hypermedia system and an important precursor of virtual reality.

1970 to 1980

The Mansfield Amendment of 1973 expressly limited appropriations for defence research (through ARPA/DARPA) only to projects with direct military application.

The resulting “brain drain” is also credited with boosting the development of the fledgling personal computer industry. Some young computer scientists left the universities to start-ups and private research laboratories such as Xerox PARC.

Between 1976 and 1981, DARPA’s major projects were dominated by air, land, sea, and space technology, tactical armour and anti-armour programmes, infrared sensing for space-based surveillance, high-energy laser technology for space-based missile defence, antisubmarine warfare, advanced cruise missiles, advanced aircraft, and defence applications of advanced computing. These large-scale technological programme demonstrations were joined by integrated circuit research, which resulted in submicrometer electronic technology and electron devices that evolved into the Very-Large-Scale Integration (VLSI) Programme and the Congressionally-mandated charged particle beam programme.

Many of the successful programmes were transitioned to the Services, such as the foundation technologies in automatic target recognition, space based sensing, propulsion, and materials that were transferred to the Strategic Defence Initiative Organisation (SDIO), later known as the Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation (BMDO), now titled the Missile Defence Agency (MDA).

1981 to 2020

During the 1980s, the attention of the Agency was centred on information processing and aircraft-related programmes, including the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) or Hypersonic Research Programme. The Strategic Computing Programme enabled DARPA to exploit advanced processing and networking technologies and to rebuild and strengthen relationships with universities after the Vietnam War. In addition, DARPA began to pursue new concepts for small, lightweight satellites (LIGHTSAT) and directed new programmes regarding defence manufacturing, submarine technology, and armour/anti-armour.

In 1981, two engineers, Robert McGhee and Kenneth Waldron, started to develop the Adaptive Suspension Vehicle (ASV) nicknamed the “Walker” at the Ohio State University, under a research contract from DARPA. The vehicle was 17 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 10.5 feet high, and had six legs to support its three-ton aluminium body, in which it was designed to carry cargo over difficult terrains. However, DARPA lost interest in the ASV, after problems with cold-weather tests.

On 04 February 2004 the agency shut down its so called “LifeLog Project”. The project’s aim would have been, “to gather in a single place just about everything an individual says, sees or does”.

On 28 October 2009, the agency broke ground on a new facility in Arlington, Virginia a few miles from the Pentagon.

In fall 2011, DARPA hosted the 100-Year Starship Symposium with the aim of getting the public to start thinking seriously about interstellar travel.

On 05 June 2016, NASA and DARPA announced that it planned to build new X-planes with NASA’s plan setting to create a whole series of X planes over the next 10 years.

Between 2014 and 2016, DARPA shepherded the first machine-to-machine computer security competition, the Cyber Grand Challenge (CGC), bringing a group of top-notch computer security experts to search for security vulnerabilities, exploit them, and create fixes that patch those vulnerabilities in a fully-automated fashion.

In June 2018, DARPA leaders demonstrated a number of new technologies that were developed within the framework of the GXV-T programme. The goal of this programme is to create a lightly armoured combat vehicle of not very large dimensions, which, due to manoeuvrability and other tricks, can successfully resist modern anti-tank weapon systems.

In September 2020, DARPA and the US Air Force announced that the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) are ready for free-flight tests within the next year.

Victoria Coleman became the director of DARPA in November 2020.

Organisation

Current Programme Offices

DARPA has six technical offices that manage the agency’s research portfolio, and two additional support offices that manage special projects and transition efforts. All offices report to the DARPA director, including:

  • The Adaptive Execution Office (AEO) is one of two new DARPA offices created in 2009 by the DARPA Director, Regina Dugan. The office’s four project areas include technology transition, assessment, rapid productivity and adaptive systems. AEO provides the agency with robust connections to the warfighter community and assists the agency with the planning and execution of technology demonstrations and field trials to promote adoption by the warfighter, accelerating the transition of new technologies into DoD capabilities.
  • The Defence Sciences Office (DSO) vigorously pursues the most promising technologies within a broad spectrum of the science and engineering research communities and develops those technologies into important, radically new military capabilities. DSO identifies and pursues high-risk, high-payoff fundamental research initiatives across a broad spectrum of science and engineering disciplines – sometimes reshaping existing fields or creating entirely new disciplines – and transforms these initiatives into radically new, game-changing technologies for US national security.
  • The Information Innovation Office (I2O) aims to ensure US technological superiority in all areas where information can provide a decisive military advantage.
  • The Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) mission focuses on the heterogeneous microchip-scale integration of electronics, photonics, and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Their high risk/high payoff technology is aimed at solving the national level problems of protection from biological, chemical and information attack and to provide operational dominance for mobile distributed command and control, combined manned and unmanned warfare, and dynamic, adaptive military planning and execution.
  • The Strategic Technology Office (STO) mission is to focus on technologies that have a global theatre-wide impact and that involve multiple Services.
  • The Tactical Technology Office (TTO) engages in high-risk, high-payoff advanced military research, emphasizing the “system” and “subsystem” approach to the development of aeronautic, space, and land systems as well as embedded processors and control systems
  • The Biological Technologies Office (BTO) fosters, demonstrates, and transitions breakthrough fundamental research, discoveries, and applications that integrate biology, engineering, and computer science for national security. Created in April 2014 by then director Arati Prabhakar, taking programmes from the MTO and DSO divisions.

Former Offices

  • Information Awareness Office: 2002-2003.
  • The Advanced Technology Office (ATO) researched, demonstrated, and developed high payoff projects in maritime, communications, special operations, command and control, and information assurance and survivability mission areas.
  • The Special Projects Office (SPO) researched, developed, demonstrated, and transitioned technologies focused on addressing present and emerging national challenges. SPO investments ranged from the development of enabling technologies to the demonstration of large prototype systems. SPO developed technologies to counter the emerging threat of underground facilities used for purposes ranging from command-and-control, to weapons storage and staging, to the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. SPO developed significantly more cost-effective ways to counter proliferated, inexpensive cruise missiles, UAVs, and other platforms used for weapon delivery, jamming, and surveillance. SPO invested in novel space technologies across the spectrum of space control applications including rapid access, space situational awareness, counterspace, and persistent tactical grade sensing approaches including extremely large space apertures and structures.
  • The Information Systems Office (ISO) in the 1990s developed system applications of advanced information technologies. It was a predecessor to the Information Exploitation Office.

A 1991 reorganisation created several offices which existed throughout the early 1990s:

  • The Electronic Systems Technology Office combined areas of the Defence Sciences Office and the Defence Manufacturing Office. This new office will focus on the boundary between general-purpose computers and the physical world, such as sensors, displays and the first few layers of specialized signal-processing that couple these modules to standard computer interfaces.
  • The Computing Systems Technology Office combined functions of the old Information Sciences and Tactical Technology office. The office “will work scalable parallel and distributed heterogeneous computing systems technologies”, DoD said.
  • The Software and Intelligent Systems Technology Office and the Computing Systems office will have responsibility associated with the Presidential High-Performance Computing Initiative. The Software office will also be responsible for “software systems technology, machine intelligence and software engineering.”
  • The Land Systems Office was created to develop advanced land vehicle and anti-armour systems, once the domain of the Tactical Technology Office.
  • The Undersea Warfare Office combined areas of the Advanced Vehicle Systems and Tactical Technology offices to develop and demonstrate submarine stealth and counter-stealth and automation.

A 2010 reorganisation merged two offices:

  • The Transformational Convergence Technology Office (TCTO) mission was to advance new crosscutting capabilities derived from a broad range of emerging technological and social trends, particularly in areas related to computing and computing-reliant subareas of the life sciences, social sciences, manufacturing, and commerce. The TCTO was folded into the I2O in 2010.
  • The Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) focused on inventing the networking, computing, and software technologies vital to ensuring DOD military superiority. The IPTO was combined with TCTO in 2010 to form the I2O.

Projects

A list of DARPA’s active and archived projects is available on the agency’s website. Because of the agency’s fast pace, programmes constantly start and stop based on the needs of the US government. Structured information about some of the DARPA’s contracts and projects is publicly available.

Examples of Projects

  • ACTUV: A project to build an unmanned Anti-submarine warfare vessel.
  • Air Dominance Initiative: a 2015 programme to develop technologies to be used in sixth-generation jet fighters.
  • Big Mechanism: Cancer research (2015).
  • Blackjack: a 2018+ programme to develop and test military satellite constellation technologies with a variety of “military-unique sensors and payloads [attached to] commercial satellite buses. …as an ‘architecture demonstration intending to show the high military utility of global LEO constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight, and cost spacecraft nodes.’ … The idea is to demonstrate that ‘good enough’ payloads in LEO can perform military missions, augment existing programs, and potentially perform ‘on par or better than currently deployed exquisite space systems.'”
  • BlockADE: Rapidly constructed barrier (2014).
  • Boeing X-37.
  • Captive Air Amphibious Transporter.
  • Causal Exploration of Complex Operational Environments (“Causal Exploration”), a computerised aid to military planning (2018).
  • Clean-Slate Design of Resilient, Adaptive, Secure Hosts (CRASH), a TCTO initiative.
  • Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System.
  • Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE): Modular software architecture for UAVs to pass information to each other in contested environments to identify and engage targets with limited operator direction (2015).
  • Combat Zones That See: “track everything that moves” in a city by linking up a massive network of surveillance cameras.
  • Computational Weapon Optic (CWO): Computer rifle scope that combines various features into one optic.
  • DARPA XG: technology for Dynamic Spectrum Access for assured military communications.
  • Experimental Spaceplane 1 (formerly XS-1): phase 2 and 3 of a reusable unmanned space transport.
  • Fast Lightweight Autonomy: Software algorithms that enable small UAVs to fly fast in cluttered environments without GPS or external communications (2014).
  • Force Application and Launch from Continental United States (FALCON): a research effort within TTO to develop a small satellite launch vehicle (2008).
    • This vehicle is under development by AirLaunch LLC.
  • Gremlins: Air-launched and recoverable UAVs with distributed capabilities to provide low-cost flexibility over expensive multirole platforms.
  • Ground X-Vehicle Technology.
  • High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defence System.
  • High Productivity Computing Systems.
  • HIVE (Hierarchical Identify Verify Exploit) CPU architecture (2017).
  • Hydra: Undersea network of mobile unmanned sensors (2013).
  • Insect Allies (2017-2021).
  • Integrated Sensor is Structure.
  • Intelligent Integration of Information (I3) in SISTO, 1994–2000. A supported database research and with ARPA CISTO and NASA funded the NSF Digital Library programme, that led. a.o. to Google.
  • Media Forensics (MediFor) – A project aimed at automatically spotting digital manipulation in images and videos, including Deepfakes (2018).
  • MEMS Exchange: Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) Implementation Environment.
  • Near Zero Power RF and Sensor Operations (N-ZERO): Reducing or eliminating the standby power unattended ground sensors consume (2015).
  • Neural implants for soldiers (2014).
  • Persistent Close Air Support.
  • PREventing EMerging Pathogenic Threats (PREEMPT).
  • Protein Design: Processes.
  • QuASAR: Quantum Assisted Sensing and Readout.
  • QuBE: Quantum Effects in Biological Environments.
  • QUEST: Quantum Entanglement Science and Technology.
  • Quiness: Macroscopic Quantum Communications.
  • QUIST: Quantum Information Science and Technology.
  • Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites programme: a telerobotic and autonomous robotic satellite-servicing project, conceived in 2017, and planned for launch no earlier than the 2020s.
  • Remote-controlled insects.
  • SafeGenes: a synthetic biology project to programme “undo” sequences into gene editing programmes (2016).
  • Satellite Remote Listening System: a satellite mounted system that can eavesdrop on a targeted area on the surface of the planet in coordination with satellite cameras.
  • Sensor plants: DARPA “is working on a plan to use plants to gather intelligence information” through DARPA’s Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) programme, which aims to control the physiology of plants in order to detect chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats (2017).
  • SIGMA: A network of radiological detection devices the size of smart phones that can detect small amounts of radioactive materials. The devices are paired with larger detector devices along major roads and bridges (2016).
  • SoSITE – System of Systems Integration Technology and Experimentation: Combinations of aircraft, weapons, sensors, and mission systems that distribute air warfare capabilities across a large number of interoperable manned and unmanned platforms (2015).
  • SSITH – System Security Integrated Through Hardware and Firmware – secure hardware platform (2017); basis for open-source, hack-proof voting system project and 2019 system prototype contract.
  • SXCT – Squad X Core Technologies: Digitised, integrated technologies that improve infantry squads’ awareness, precision, and influence (2015).
  • SyNAPSE: Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics.
  • Tactical Boost Glide (TBG): Air-launched hypersonic boost glide missile (2016).
  • Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node: Ship-based long-range ISR UAV (2014).
  • TransApps (Transformative Applications), rapid development and fielding of secure mobile apps in the battlefield.
  • UAVForge (2011).
  • ULTRA-Vis (Urban Leader Tactical Response, Awareness and Visualisation): Heads-up display for individual soldiers (2014).
  • Upward Falling Payloads: Payloads stored on the ocean floor that can be activated and retrieved when needed (2014).
  • VTOL X-Plane (2013).
  • Warrior Web: Soft exosuit to alleviate musculoskeletal stress on soldiers when carrying heavy loads (2014).
  • XDATA: Processing and analysing vast amounts of information (2012).

In Popular Culture

DARPA is well known as a high-tech government agency, and as such has many appearances in popular fiction. Some realistic references to DARPA in fiction are as “ARPA” in Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X (DARPA consults on a technical threat), in episodes of television programme The West Wing (the ARPA-DARPA distinction), the television programme Numb3rs, and the Netflix film Spectral.

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