The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is charged with developing breakthrough technologies for national security, a mission it pursues through a variety of research funding programs and contests that engage researchers in business and at academic and research institutions.
Early targeted investments by DARPA have led to revolutionary advances in precision guidance and navigation, stealth, unmanned vehicles, night vision, communications and networking for military uses, as well as laying the foundation for development of significant civilian and commercial technologies such as the Internet.
So what’s new at DARPA? The following is a recap of current program announcements and news emanating from one of the nation’s premier research institutions.
Removing The Communications Barrier Between Human and Computers
DARPA's new Communicating with Computers (CwC) program aims to develop technology to turn computers into good communicators.
Straightforward as that may sound, communication involves several coordinated processes. A speaker puts ideas into words, the listener extracts ideas from words and, importantly, both rely on context to narrow down the possible meanings of ambiguous language. All of these processes are challenging for machines.
"Human communication feels so natural that we don't notice how much mental work it requires," said Paul Cohen, DARPA program manager. "But try to communicate while you're doing something else – the high accident rate among people who text while driving says it all – and you'll quickly realize how demanding it is."
Human-machine communication falls short of the human-human standard, where speakers and listeners consider such contextual aspects as what has been said already, the purposes of the communication, the best ways to express ideas, who they are speaking with, prevailing social conventions and the availability of other modes of expression such as gestures. And so computers that might otherwise contribute more significantly to solving problems in a range of areas, including national security, remain in relatively simplistic roles such as crunching large datasets and providing driving directions.
To further the goal of developing systems that communicate more like people do, DARPA’s CwC program will set tasks in which humans and machines must communicate to do a job. One task will involve collaborative story-telling, in which a human and a machine will take turns contributing sentences until they have written a short story. "This is a parlor game for humans, but a tremendous challenge for computers," said Cohen. "To do it well, the machine must keep track of the ideas in the story, then generate an idea about how to extend the story and express this idea in language."
Another CwC task will be to build computer-based models of the complicated molecular processes that cause cells to become cancerous that can work collaboratively with human biologists to assess the biological plausibility of vast numbers of molecular models.
Developing Prosthetic Hands That Have a Sense of Touch
Despite recent advances in technology for upper-limb prostheses, artificial arms and hands are still unable to provide users with sensory feedback, such as the “feel” of things being touched or awareness of limb position and movement. Without this feedback, even the most advanced prosthetic limbs remain numb to users, a factor that impairs the limbs’ effectiveness and their wearers’ willingness to use them.
DARPA’s Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces program (HAPTIX) is working to develop prosthetic hands with a sense of touch, leveraging commercially available technologies, such as intramuscular electrodes and lead technologies, developed initially for cardiac pacemakers and now used in several modern implantable medical devices. The program also plans to apply advanced microelectrode array and nerve cuff electrode technologies that have been developed over the past two decades with support from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and DARPA.
In early February, DARPA announced that it has awarded prime contracts for Phase 1 of its Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program to the following institutions:
- Case Western Reserve University
- Cleveland Clinic
- Draper Laboratory
- Nerves Incorporated
- Ripple LLC
- University of Pittsburgh
- University of Utah
- University of Florida
Integrating Flexible, Adaptable Technologies into Squad Operations
DARPA’s new Squad X Core Technologies (SXCT) program aims to speed the development of new, lightweight, integrated systems that provide infantry squads with unprecedented awareness, adaptability and flexibility in complex environments, and enable dismounted soldiers and marines to more intuitively understand and control their complex mission environments, without being overburdened by cumbersome hardware.
Four key technical areas are currently under exploration:
- Precision Engagement: Precisely engage threats out to 0.6 mile (1,000 meters), while maintaining compatibility with infantry weapon systems and without imposing weight or operational burdens that would negatively affect mission effectiveness
- Non-Kinetic Engagement: Disrupt enemy command and control, communications and use of unmanned assets at a squad-relevant operational pace (walking with occasional bursts of speed)
- Squad Sensing: Detect potential threats out to 0.6 mile (1,000 meters) at a squad-relevant operational pace
- Squad Autonomy: Increase squad members’ real-time knowledge of their own and teammates’ locations to less than 20 feet (6 meters) in GPS-denied environments through collaboration with embedded unmanned air and ground systems
To familiarize potential participants with the technical objectives of SXCT, DARPA held a Proposers Day on 27 February. The DARPA Special Notice document announcing the Proposers Day and describing the specific capabilities sought is available at http://go.usa.gov/he8w.
LRASM Prototype is Three-for-Three on Successful Flight Tests
In February, DARPA announced that its Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) prototype, begun in collaboration with the U.S. Navy in 2009, has completed three successful flight tests. LRASM transitioned from a DARPA technology demonstration program to a formal U.S. Navy program of record in February 2014, and is set for field deployment in 2018. The LRASM program aims to reduce dependence on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, network links and GPS navigation in electronic warfare environments while providing innovative terminal survivability approaches and precision lethality in the face of advanced countermeasures.
25 Teams Set for DARPA 2015 Robotics Challenge
The international robotics community has turned out in force for the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals, a competition of robots and their human supervisors set for 5-6 June at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif. In the competition, human-robot teams will be tested on capabilities that could enable them to provide assistance in future natural and manmade disasters. Fourteen new teams from Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and the United States qualified to join 11 previously announced teams. In total, 25 teams will now vie for a chance to win one of three cash prizes totaling $3.5 million at the DRC Finals.
“We’re excited to see so much international interest in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals,” said Gill Pratt, program manager for the DRC. “The diverse participation indicates not only a general interest in robotics, but also the priority many governments are placing on furthering robotic technology. As this technology becomes increasingly global, cooperating with the United States in areas where there is mutual concern, such as disaster response and homeland security, stands to benefit every country involved."
Robots4Us Video Contest for High School Students
How will the growing use of robots change people’s lives and make a difference for society? How do teens want robots to make a difference in the future? Through its new Robots4Us student video contest, DARPA is asking high school students to address these issues creatively by producing short videos about the robotics-related possibilities they foresee and the kind of robot-assisted society in which they would like to live.
U.S. high school students (grades 9-12) interested in participating in the contest are asked to submit a two- to three-minute video describing their vision for a future robot-assisted society. Five winners, along with one parent or guardian each, will receive a trip to attend the DARPA’s Robotics Challenge Finals (5-6 June) , where they will watch some of the world’s most sophisticated robots respond to the kinds of challenges posed by natural and manmade disasters. Following the event, winners will take part in a special panel to discuss the ideas and views they featured in their videos. A “people’s choice” winner also will be selected based on public voting on videos that DARPA will post on YouTube in mid-April.
For more information, visit www.theroboticschallenge.org/Robots4Us.
Service Academies Face Off in Competition to Protect Nation’s CyberNetworks
More than 40 Cadets, Midshipmen and faculty from the U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy converged in Pittsburgh in early February to take part in the second annual CyberStakes Live competition, sponsored by DARPA. Participants from the nation’s Service academies scrambled to protect their computer systems while trying to find and exploit vulnerabillities in their competitors' systems in two exciting “Capture the Flag” contexts modeled after global cybersecurity tournaments. A full list of events and results is available at http://go.usa.gov/h5pR.
“It’s crucially important that our military leaders have deep technical skills and understand how adversaries could exploit cyber vulnerabilities to subvert the security of our systems,” said Daniel Ragsdale, DARPA program manager. “To that end, the Service Academy CyberStakes seeks to teach future officers how to rapidly acquire and apply the evolving knowledge and skills they need to defend our increasingly complex and interconnected information and communication infrastructures.”
CyberStakes is half of DARPA’s two-pronged Service Academy Competition Pilot effort, which aims to better cultivate the great potential of young officers-to-be and encourage their career-long collaboration with DARPA. It complements the DARPA Service Academy Innovation Challenge, a competition to encourage U.S. military academy students to develop practical, potentially transformative technologies that could address challenges facing the U.S. military. Nine teams—three from each Service Academy—are scheduled to square off in the second annual competition on 28 April at DARPA’s offices in Arlington, Va.