DARPA, Will You Be Our Valentine?

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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 dive into the glittery and shiny agency that has had our attention — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

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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 1985 (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 Historical Spending & Fy19 budget outlook

Since FY14, DARPA has clocked over $513M in federal spending (as tracked in FPDS) from budget sources such as the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and the U.S. Army. Due to the nature of their work, many would assume that DARPA is a big Other Transaction Agreement (OTA) user, but in reality, DARPA’s “procurement candy of choice” is the Broad Agency Announcement (BAA).

Since the FY17 appropriations the rising defense tide hasn’t really benefited defense science and technology (S&T) (DARPA’s main money supplier) and the reasons seem unclear because of the loud rhetoric coming from the Oval Office. Regardless, DARPA continues to stay  relatively healthy with the release of the President’s FY19 budget, which funds DARPA’s FY19 budget of $3.4B to develop technologies for revolutionary, high-payoff military capabilities.

DARPA Today

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 future opportunities

In order to assist GovCons in their mission to score something sweet on this Valentine’s Day, The Pulse took a wondrous boat ride to explore the DARPA factory tunnels. Take a trip with us into some of their most recent initiatives, and learn about ten (10) upcoming DARPA GovCon opportunities to satisfy that sweet tooth.

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. The plants would be entirely energy independent and could even detect landmines. DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO) hosted a proposers day on December 12, 2017, to discuss how their program aims to control and direct plant physiology to detect chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. Didn’t know your houseplants had a natural ability to detect pathogens, atoms, and electromagnetic signals, huh?

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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 6th 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.

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.

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. DARPA TTO hosted a Subterranean Proposers Day on January 18, 2018 in advance of their Subterranean Challenge (SubT) BAA Program, which was released February 1st.

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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. Today, 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.

Playing Friend or Foe with Bacteria

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 biosurveillance and countermeasures. DARPA BTO is holding a Friends or Foe Proposer Day on February 28th in order to collaborate with industry on how to structure the objectives of this new program.

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Space Launch Challenge

DARPA is all-in to #MakeAmericaSpaceAgain with the space race resurgence. The DARPA Launch Challenge won’t be formally announced until April, but Mr. Fred Kennedy, Director of DARPA’s TTO, said it is part of an effort to harness growing commercial capabilities to address threats to national security space assets. Details are soon to be announced, but it looks like there are cash money and prizes to be collected!

Artificial Intelligence

On January 24th, 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. Out of 250 DARPA programs, 80 (32%) are AI-requirements based. 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. (DARPA said they are just dipping their toe into this wave)

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.”

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