The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will be celebrating its 50th anniversary at a conference in Washington today where it will reflect on the accomplishments of the last 50 years and the challenges of the future. DARPA’s mission is to prevent technological surprise for the United States and to create technological surprise for adversaries. A brief recap of its achievements verifies a job well done – the technologies it has developed have changed the face of warfare, catalyzed the information revolution, and continue to have a massive influence on the evolution of technology in daily life. Happy birthday DARPA.
DARPA was created by U.S. President Eisenhower in response to the totally unexpected Russian launch of the first artificial satellite to be put into outer space. Launched into geocentric orbit by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, Sputnik was irrefutable evidence that the United States was in danger of losing its technological edge, and DARPA was formed on February 7, 1958 to develop advanced technology for the Armed Forces so the United States would never again suffer a technological surprise by another nation.
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In the beginning, DARPA concentrated on space projects and developed the Saturn V rocket, which enabled the Apollo missions to the moon and wrested back the space race lead. The Saturn V also carried the first surveillance satellites into space, giving U.S. administration invaluable intelligence information on Russian missile program activities.
Some of DARPA’s greatest triumphs are well known, such as its ingenious ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet, its stealth aircraft, advanced precision munitions, and the UAVs which have dramatically changed warfare. The drive supplied by DARPA in developing semi-autonomous and autonomous air, land and sea-going robotics, will precipitate another global revolution over the next few decades.
Other DARPA achievements are less well-known: new materials such as gallium arsenide, used in high-speed circuits; new metals, such as beryllium, stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum; solid-state photon detectors, from visible to long wavelength, which led to night-vision capabilities allowing U.S. forces to “own the night”; microwave and millimeterwave monolithic integrated circuits, the essence of today’s cell phones and miniature GPS receivers; lithography that allowed the number of transistors to reach 100 billion on a chip smaller than the size of a thumbnail. Current DARPA programs hold the potential to have equally revolutionary impacts in the future. Today’s research, according to DARPA documents, holds promise to enable military-grade titanium at US$3.50 a pound, instead of US$35 a pound; high-quality military jet fuel processed from crops grown in the United States; a machine capable of rapidly translating foreign language speech and text as well as, if not better than, experienced linguists; a prosthetic arm so capable that a wounded Soldier could play the piano, throw a baseball, or pick up his child; a computer that can process at a rate faster than one billion million instructions per second.
DARPA is unique among government research organizations in the way it manages its annual budget. It owns no laboratories or test facilities – instead it solicits and funds research from industry, academia, and other government laboratories. These researchers are managed by DARPA’s world-class program managers, who are hired to bring their innovative ideas and technical expertise to DARPA for a short period of time – most of DARPA’s technical staff stays at the agency for four to six years. The constant influx of new expertise imbues DARPA with an energetic and dynamic outlook not often found in the government or even in private industry.
“DARPA program managers are effective leaders who are creative, work hard, and are not afraid of failure,” said DARPA’s Director, Dr. Tony Tether. “We are always looking for people interested in coming to DARPA to make breakthrough discoveries and to turn their dream into reality.” He notes that those interested in learning more about working at DARPA can visit the agency’s website, for more information.
“I’m honored to serve as Director as DARPA enters its sixth decade,” Tether continues.
“The urgency of maintaining technological surprise is as acute as ever. Everyone at DARPA feels a personal commitment to continuing to deliver revolutionary technologies in support of our men and women in uniform.”