DARPA: 50 and still counting

During the past 50 years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has contributed much to American lives and culture.

The agency was founded in 1958; within three years, it had already begun to leave its mark in American imagination. In 1961, Tom Swift consulted a DARPA scientist about the cause of mysterious earthquakes in 'Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X.'

More recently, the agency has had a significant role in several episodes of 'The West Wing' and in the 1996 movie 'Executive Decision.'

Along the way, DARPA also made more concrete contributions to American society, including:
  • The Saturn V rocket, which carried the Apollo missions to the moon.
  • The world's first surveillance satellites.
  • The Arpanet, the precursor to today's Internet.
  • New materials, such as gallium arsenide, now used in high-speed integrated circuits.
  • The computer mouse.

Some analysts have even argued that DARPA also indirectly helped give birth to the PC.

When legislation in 1973 limited funding for defense research, many researchers abandoned DARPA-funded programs at universities in favor of private companies and start-ups, including those that brought the PC to market.

But enough of the past. What is DARPA going to do for us in the future? With a budget of approximately $3.2 billion, DARPA publicly said it has 303 ongoing projects. Among them:
  • The Oblique Flying Wing, an asymmetric flying wing that varies sweep in flight to improve high-speed performance.
  • The Multi-Dimensional Mobility Robot (MDMR), a robot that employs snakelike capabilities to explore complex urban terrain for search and rescue applications. The robot is being designed to be able to cross slippery surfaces, ascend poles, and climb steep slopes.
  • Morphing aircraft, a project to develop designs for aircraft that are able to change shape during flight to be more efficient under different conditions.
  • Underwater Express, a program to enable high-speed underwater transport through supercavitation. Supercavitation involves the creation of a large bubble of gas inside a liquid through which the craft moves. The goal is to develop an underwater craft capable of moving as fast as 100 knots.
  • Z-man, a program to develop climbing aids that will enable warfighters to scale vertical walls constructed of typical building materials without the need for ropes or ladders. According to the program description, the inspiration for these climbing aids is the technique by which geckos, spiders and small animals scale vertical surfaces ' that is, by using unique biological systems that enable controllable adhesion using van der Waals forces or by hooking surface asperities.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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