DARPA at 50DARPA: Hits, misses, and projects to watch

Published 16 May 2008

Over the years DARPA has funded thousands of research projects; some were hugely successful, others were howlers; all evinced an intellectual restlessness, deep curiosity, and a willingness to fail while trying - all characteristics not typically associated with a government agency

During its fifty years in existence, DARPA has funded thousands of projects. Some made headlines because they were either very successful or a complete bust, others never received any press coverage. New Scientist’s Duncan Graham-Rowe offers a list of successful and less successful projects, and those DARPA is currently funding and which merit watching.

Successful projects

  • The internet: Precisely who “invented” the Internet may be impossible to determine, but it would not have happened without the ARPANET network built by DARPA in the 1960s. The idea was to make a self-healing communications network which still worked when parts of it were destroyed. It was the first network to transmit data in discrete chunks, not constant streams, and led to the development of the TCP/IP specification still in use today.
  • GPS: Global positioning system (GPS) is now everywhere, but long before the current NAVSTAR GPS satellites were launched, came a constellation of just five DARPA satellites called Transit. First operational in 1960, they gave U.S. Navy ships hourly location fixes as accurate as 200 meters.
  • Speech translation: Not yet available to consumers, but hand-held language translation devices developed with DARPA funding are already being used in Iraq. Accuracy can be as low as 50 percent, but the devices have met with favorable reviews from forces on the ground.
  • Stealth planes: This may well be the best example of DARPA fulfilling its remit to come up with surprise technologies — even the U.S. Air Force was surprised by the idea. The first prototype, Have Blue, was tested in the late 1970s and became the precursor to F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.
  • Gallium arsenide: One of the lesser known accomplishments of DARPA, semiconductor gallium arsenide received a push from a $600 million computer research program in the mid-1980s. Although more costly than silicon, the material has become central to wireless communications chips in everything from cell phones to satellites, thanks to its high electron mobility which lets it work at higher frequencies.

Failed projects

  • Hafnium bombs: In an episode reminiscent of the Cold Fusion debacle, DARPA spent more than $7 million in the 1990s for research into a bomb predicted to release huge gamma-ray bursts without creating any nuclear fallout. The theory was that hitting a small amount of a radioactive isomer of the super-expensive metal hafnium with X-rays would release this torrent of energy. No proof this