DARPA: Hits, misses, and projects to watch

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  • The mechanical elephant: Frustrated by a lack of decent tarmac in the jungle, as was evident during the Vietnam war, DARPA sought to create a mechanical elephant. Its vision of high-tech Hannibal piloting them through the forest never came true. It is alleged that when the director heard of the plan he scrapped the “damn fool” project immediately in the hope no one would hear about it.
  • Telepathic spies: One of the agency’s most famous blunders was its 1970s psychic spy program, inspired by reports that the Soviets were researching the area. DARPA invested millions to see wethertelepaths and psychokinetics, who claim to move objects using thought alone, could carry out remote espionage. They could not.
  • FutureMap: This program hoped to use a kind of terrorism futures market to predict key developments and even attacks. It was thought market valuations of possible future events could reflect the probability of their occurring. However, FutureMap was scrapped in 2003 after the notion of betting on terrorist atrocities was called “ridiculous and grotesque” by U.S. politicians.
  • Orion: Set in motion shortly after DARPA was created, Project Orion aimed to drive an interplanetary spacecraft by periodically dropping nuclear bombs out of its rear end. The entire craft was designed like a giant shock absorber with the back covered in thick shielding to protect human passengers. Concerns about nuclear fallout and the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty ended the project in the early 1960s.
  • Projects to watch

    • Robot cars: DARPA’s Grand Challenge competitions have aimed to foster the creation of driverless cars capable of traveling long distances across difficult terrain and even through busy traffic. Thanks to the competitions, some impressive vehicles have already been produced and it will not be long before DARPA robot cars are used in real military or civilian scenarios.
    • Z-man: The aim is to allow soldiers to scale vertical walls without ropes or ladders at a rate of 0.5 meters a second. The solution: mimic the microscopic hairs, or “setae,” which allow geckos to stroll up walls and across ceilings. Small robots that climb using synthetic setae have already been demonstrated, but DARPA hopes to extend this technology to humans.
    • Underwater express: Troop-transporting torpedoes could travel at speeds of up to 100 knots thanks to a phenomenon called supercavitation. This occurs when an object moves fast enough to vaporize the water around it into a single enveloping bubble. With virtually no contact between the torpedo and the water, drag is reduced by up to 70 percent. Tests so far have been restricted to unmanned drones.
    • Bionic limbs: DARPA wants prosthetic limbs which are “fully functional, neurologically controlled and have normal sensory capabilities” and is funding scientists who are making serious progress. For example, Video of a bionic arm built by the creator of the Segway shows impressive dexterity, while other teams have built prototype prosthetics controlled by thought alone.
    • Switchblade: DARPA has already revolutionized aerial warfare by encouraging the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Switchblade should go further by becoming the first supersonic UAV capable of long-range missions. The $10.3 million project involves a bizarre design. The aircraft’s 61-metre wingspan pivots by 60° as it gains speed, until one wing points forwards and the other backwards enabling it to reach speeds of Mach 2.
    • Exoskeletons: Think of an exoskeleton as a mechanical full-body upgrade. DARPA wants to increase the distance soldiers can march and the loads that they can carry with them. An exoskeleton developed by MIT with DARPA funding recently proved it could make a 36 kilograms load feel 80 percent lighter.