Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

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Updated: February 14, 2019

Originally Posted: February 14, 2018

Sometimes working an interesting Government contract can feel like finding the golden ticket. The projects can be stale and predictable, and some subject matter just isn’t sexy no matter which rose-colored glasses you are wearing. Since it’s Valentine’s Day, The Pulse has decided to re-visit the glittery and shiny agency that has had our attention — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).


Whether it’s developing the world’s largest autonomous “Sea Hunter” ship for the U.S. Navy, or their “Luke Skywalker” advanced prosthetic arm that currently gets within nine (9) degrees of freedom in the hand, DARPA truly is a world of pure imagination.

Created in February of 1958 (Happy Anniversary!) by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a response to the Cold War via DoD Directive 5015.15, DARPA serves as one of the main dreamers within the Defense factory whose mission is to ensure that the United States avoids technological surprise.

By charter, DARPA has autonomy in selecting and running projects, which allows a range of organizational independence to move fast and take bold risks. By collaborating with academia, industry, and Government partners, DARPA has been responsible for some of the world’s most significant scientific breakthroughs (hello - GPS and the INTERNET!) and milestone inventions such as:

  • Bullets that can change direction in flight

  • Flying trucks

  • Robotic pack animals

  • Active authentication to replace useless internet password

DARPA Spending + Historical Trends

Since FY14, DARPA has clocked over $8.231B in federal obligations and shows no signs of slowing down. Back in September 2018, the Senate gave DARPA the boost it needed with a strong surge in FY19 discretionary spending (+11.7%) and defense basic research (+11.8%). This followed a strong FY18 raise where DARPA saw a +6.3% uptick in budget ($3.1B), which included a +20% increase to the basic sciences and an expansion in missile defense, complex weapon systems, electronics research, biotechnology, and space technologies.

The increase is steady growth in federal funding has also helped DARPA funnel more funds to its colleagues to include U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, Defense Microelectronics Activity (DMEA), and State Department (DOS). These funds help paint a picture of how critical federal research investments are becoming in the United States (finally) with significant increases in electronics technology, advanced aerospace systems, and emerging complex weapon systems R&D.

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The role of DARPA is more complicated and critical than ever before as Government leaders and industry experts send out a warning shot, stating how U.S. risks falling behind in the global cyber race. As the United States’ technical superiority has been challenged over the years, GovCon has witnessed the rise of the “peer competitor,” and our country is racing to get out of “reactive mode”. Cut to DARPA - an agency with both beauty and brains - that is responsible for formulating, executing, and investing in eccentric R&D projects pushing the frontier of technology and science, and often beyond immediate U.S. military requirements.

DARPA is a GovCon trendsetter with a sweet spot in understanding where technology is leading our globalized world, and they are a master in transforming complex threats into breakthrough technologies. What is even more appealing is how simple their goals are for such complex subject matter (we like an agency that gets straight to the point):

  • Goal #1: Defend the nation

  • Goal #2: Prevail in large scale conflict

  • Goal #3: Be more effective in counter-terrorism

In order to accomplish these goals, DARPA takes a whirl at solving problems through their own version of a Government-enabled factory that would make Willy Wonka hand over his keys. Leveraging the use of BAAs and armed with a new acquisition office led by the Undersecretary of Defense for R&E, DARPA continues to encourage invention...which as we know is “93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple”.

DARPA Opportunities

When we initially posted this article last February, we provided our readers with a list of upcoming DARPA GovCon opportunities to satisfy their sweet tooth. As an update, The Pulse decided to jump back on our wondrous boat ride to check-in on the work being done in the DARPA factory tunnels. Check out our latest Pipeline Playbook dedicated to all things DARPA.

Recent DARPA Initiatives

Intelligent healings for complex wounds

DARPA Biological Technologies Office (BTO) announced The Bioelectronics for Tissue Regeneration Program (BETR) Program - a shiny new program focused in developing bioelectronic implants that stimulate tissue recovery in complex wounds, such as those suffered by troops in battle. One of the important breakthroughs BETR is hoping for is a mechanism for monitoring the body’s physiological processes in real time. Whereas the application of an adaptive treatment like antibiotic ointment is useful in treating cuts, completely wiping out natural bacteria can impair healing.

3D City Scale Operations

Good news! The future of warfare won't happen on open battlefields! Bad news? It will occur in cities, where half the world's’ population resides. Okay, that’s all bad news. And just to complicate things further, cities are considered 3D, in part because of the tall buildings and skyscrapers, but ALSO because of the underground. Cities are filled with man-made, man-scale, three dimensional structures—buildings with complex interiors, exterior alleys, interlocking subterranean tunnels. DARPA is struggling with how to get situational awareness underground in “cave-type” networks. DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO) is looking to GovCon for ideas on how to solve these subterranean challenges, as well as ways to map, navigate, and search these environments with no human risk or involvement.

Innovation Update: In September 2018, DARPA began selecting vendors and participants for its tunnel challenge, with a competitor's day in the Louisville Mega Cavern, a 100-acre manmade limestone cave. At last nine teams, armed with robots, tracking software and systems will descend on an old Colorado mine for the next leg of the DARPA’s competition to develop technology to find and map subterranean passages and infrastructure. Who doesn’t love a Government-funded treasury hunt?

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fake news

Unfortunately, “fake news” and “influencers” have taken center stage in our day-to-day lives. DARPA has started various programs such as Metaphor Program and MediFor to develop tools to determine if a picture or video had been tampered with and help an analyst pinpoint exactly where the changes were made.

Advanced Plant Technologies

DARPA’s new Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) program looks to seemingly simplify plants as the next generation of intelligence gatherers. APT programs pursue technologies to engineer robust, plant-based sensors that are self-sustaining in their environment and can be remotely monitored using existing hardware. Didn’t know your houseplants had a natural ability to detect pathogens, atoms, and electromagnetic signals, huh?

Innovation Update: In October 2018, DARPA awarded University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) $7.5M to use plants to detect environmental threats to deployed troops and help protect civilians living in post-conflict settings. While the focus of this project is the development of plant sensors for the military, stakeholders hope that advances gained through this and other efforts in synthetic agricultural biology will eventually result in crops that can tell farmers exactly what, where and when they have problems with pests, water and nutrients in their fields.

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Safe Genes

DARPA recently made a large investment into developing gene editing technologies in hopes to one day provide protection from consequential biological technologies that may one day be unleashed. In July 2017, DARPA officially dedicated $65M (over four (4) years) of funding to seven (7) different teams with a mission to investigate and develop brain-computer interface technology that is able to make gene editing technologies safe, more targeted, and potentially even reversible. On February 6, 2018 at Body Hacking Con (yes - that’s a thing), DARPA Director of BTO, Mr. Justin Sanchez, discussed DARPA’s Safe Genes Program and how he hopes this program can also help offset the consequences of biological research gone wrong and promote safe biohacking.

Innovation Update: In September 2018, two papers published in Science identified new CRISPR inhibitors - both funded by the DARPA-funded Safe Genes program. For those without a PhD this means that science is one step closer to improving not only the safety of gene-editing, but halting unwanted gene editing as well.

Playing Friend or Foe with Bacteria

Currently, it takes at least 18 months to develop a vaccine and get approval in the U.S - but DARPA wants to cut that time down to just 60 days. DARPA’s BTO is looking to GovCon to help them discriminate between harmless and harmful strains in order to prevent disease outbreak that threatens military readiness. The Friend or Foe program proposes to develop a platform technology that rapidly screens unfamiliar bacteria to establish their “pathogenicity” (aka their ability to cause disease), and discover unknown pathogenic traits as well as necessary first steps for designing effective bio-surveillance and countermeasures.

Innovation Update: DARPA is working on the Prometheus program to detect as soon as possible when someone is sick, to prevent the spread of disease.

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Mosaic Warfare

DARPA’s  Strategic Technology Office (STO) is currently working on a highly-adaptive “kill web” based on mosaic warfare. The goal is to fight as a network to create a chain of effects—or, more accurately because these effects are not linear, ‘effects webs’—to deter and defeat adversaries across multiple scales of conflict intensity. This could be anything from conventional force-on-force battles to more nebulous ‘Gray Zone’ conflicts, which don’t reach the threshold of traditional military engagements, but can be equally disruptive and subversive. In layman's terms? This approach consists of little building blocks to make a complex design. The small components lowers the cost and the pieces are less complex, but when combined they create an invaluable architecture. The collective can respond even if small pieces are neutralized.

Innovation Update: To further the new vision, STO has identified specific areas of interest for proposals to achieve next-generation composable effects webs: Situation Understanding, Multi-Domain Maneuver, Hybrid Effects, System of Systems (SoS), Maritime Systems, System of System-Enhanced Small Units (SESU), and Foundational Strategic Technologies and Systems. The agency has made a description of each area and proposal submission guidelines available in the STO office-wide BAA. Furthermore, DARPA STO recently announced that it plans to test secure warfighter mobile devices in June 2019.

Electronics Resurgence Initiative

DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) is looking to invest $216M into a combo of six (6) new programs, a portfolio of existing ones, and the Country’s largest funding program for basic university research in electronics as part of their Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI) program. DARPA MTO hopes to open new innovation pathways to address impending engineering and economics challenges that, if left unanswered, could challenge what has been a relentless half-century run of progress in microelectronics technology. This is the “semiconductor” space where Moore’s law has guided industry for the last 50 years, but there are new capabilities in electronics. Moore’s Law still applies, but the design work and fabrication now required to keep on pace is becoming ever more difficult and expensive. “The current trajectory is straining commercial and defense developments,” said Bill Chappell, Director of MTO. About a year ago, DARPA and a consortium of industry partners – which include semiconductor companies such as Intel, IBM, Analog Devices, Micron, Samsung, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed-Martin - launched the Joint University Microelectronics Program (JUMP) as part of the ERI program in November 2016, a $200M initiative over up to five (5) years. The idea is to drive the development to microelectronics-based technologies that will be needed by the DoD, national security agencies and commercial companies in the years 2025 through 2030 in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnologies, and autonomous systems.

Innovation Update: Just this month DARPA released a solicitation for the Electronics Resurgence Initiative: Defense Applications (ERI:DA) - a five-year $1.5B+ investment in electronics technologies. This comes about a month after DARPA released program information on Guaranteed Architecture for Physical Security (GAPS) - which is the second phase of ERI.

Artificial Intelligence

On January 2018, The Pulse did a deep dive into Artificial Intelligence’s Never-Ending Refrain in the Government. DARPA, whose “singular and enduring mission is to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security,” is obviously not immune from this industry hot topic. In fact, a few weeks ago they were building an AI framework and presenting it to the Deputy Secretary. For DARPA, AI has developed in three waves:

  1. The “Turbotax wave” - aka technology that has been programmed with “if then statements”

  2. Machine Learning - namely the idea that large data sets can be processed better and faster

  3. Contextualized AI - where the machine heavily understands their environment

Innovation Update: In September 2018, DARPA announced a $2B campaign to develop the next wave of AI technologies. DARPA has been making moves in various directions on AI since the announcement but GARD - or Guaranteeing AI Robustness against Deception (GARD) - DARPA’s new AI Defense Program has caught our eye. One could say that DARPA’s battle cry is “fail fast, fail often” - and GARD is their way of telling industry they still don’t have a comprehensive theoretical understanding of machine learning vulnerabilities.

DARPA is like the renaissance man of the Federal Government. With so many interesting facets, an aptitude for transparency, and the ability to challenge GovCon and academia to think outside-the-box, our collective Pulse heart is all aflutter. So DARPA, if you’re looking for a gift for us, remember the wise words of Willy Wonka: “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”