Teams from U.S. service academies demonstrate potentially transformative technologies

A panel of DARPA program managers and DARPA Service liaison officers judged each project, with most weight toward whether the project addressed current or anticipated future Defense Department (DoD) challenges over the short, middle or long term. The judges also evaluated whether each project’s approach or results were significantly novel and technically feasible, and could create disruptive or transformative capabilities or provide significant improvement over existing approaches or technologies.

The winning project, Distributed Propulsion System, presented an approach to aircraft thrust augmentation intended to save billions in fuel costs across the Air Force. The Air Force team’s prototype engine design redirects excess air through a plane’s wings, creating more forward thrust with less fuel and noise than traditional aircraft engines.

Two projects earned honorable mentions. An Army team submitted a flexible method to create structural materials that could also serve as power sources, which could save weight. A Navy team demonstrated the feasibility utilizing Unix-based servers on a small satellite as a responsive, low-cost solution to provide Internet service to remote locations.

Attendees voted for a Crowd Favorite as well. The winner was an Army project called the Heavy Lifters, a fully operational prototype inflatable bladder system capable of lifting up to 22.5 tons and operating in restrictive environments.

The winning projects reflected the wide range of maturity among all the competing entries. The Army honorable mention was an initial proof of concept, the Air Force winner and Army Crowd Favorite were developmental prototypes, and the Navy honorable mention is scheduled for initial deployment via a March 2015 space launch.

“In all the projects we saw, the Cadets and Midshipmen struck upon innovative, practical ideas that are consistent with DARPA’s approach to developing groundbreaking solutions to challenging problems,” Ragsdale said. “Based on the success of today’s event, we are eager to reach out to industry and academia to build upon the momentum we’ve achieved.”

The Service Academies Innovation Challenge was the second event in DARPA’s new two-pronged Service Academies Competition Pilot initiative. The first was the Service Academies Cyber Stakes, a competition that took place at Carnegie Mellon University 30 January-2 February 2014.

Whereas the Innovation Challenge welcomed projects of the students’ choosing, the Cyber Stakes had a more specific focus: help the Defense Department achieve its goal to have 6,000 cybersecurity experts integrated into combat commands by 2016. Meeting that goal requires building a pipeline for training and education, particularly for the future officers who will be responsible for overseeing protection of the cyber domain.

For four months before the Cyber Stakes took place, more than 100 cadets and Midshipmen from all three academies honed their skills under the tutelage of world-class cybersecurity experts. All the preparation led to the event itself: a decathlon-style computer security competition that pitted the three best teams from each school head to head over three days.

Individuals and teams from all three academies took home eighteen gold, silver and bronze medals in six different events.