DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, funds some of the world’s most far out, forward-thinking research into new military technology.
Something like Q Branch in the James Bond movies, DARPA is constantly working on what it describes as “radical innovations.” But where James Bond has the character Q to build his exploding pens, DARPA often funds private companies and external organizations to develop its high-tech hardware.
It is currently funding research into, among other things, a robot ostrich, a flying car and a plane that could stay airborne for five years at a time.
While some of the technologies it is supporting might seem more suitable for science fiction than the battlefield, the fact that DARPA is willing to fund them is a sign they are at least possible — if not always plausible. Don’t forget, DARPA’s Arpanet program is widely credited as being the precursor to today’s internet.
So here are some of DARPA’s most incredible research programs, which could change the future of warfare, and might one day have applications that extend far beyond the military.
Disc-Rotor Compound Helicopter
The Disc-Rotor is a collaboration between DARPA and Boeing. Hoping to marry the best features of a helicopter and an airplane, the Disc-Rotor program aims to develop a new type of aircraft capable of a seamlessly transitioning from hovering like a helicopter to flying like a plane.
The design is propelled by rotor blades that extend from a central disc, letting it take off and land like a helicopter. But those blades can also retract into the disc, minimizing drag and letting the Disc-Rotor fly like a plane, powered by engines beneath each wing.
DARPA’s Vulture program is developing the technology to enable an “airborne payload” to remain in the sky for more than five years at a time, performing intelligence, surveillance and communication missions. In practice, that means developing unmanned aircraft that act like satellites.
Boeing is again working on the project, researching its “SolarEagle,” a solar-powered, unmanned craft with a 120-meter wing span. It is designed to operate at altitudes above 18,000 meters. Boeing hopes it will make its first demonstration flight in 2014.
Tech company iRobot worked with DARPA on its “ChemBots” program. The aim was to build soft, flexible robots that could deform their bodies to move through openings smaller than themselves (e.g. under doors) to carry out covert tasks.
IRobot used a transitional — or “jamming” — material, with properties of both a solid and a liquid, to create a flexible robot that can crawl on six floppy legs. While DARPA’s funding has now expired, iRobot is still researching soft robotics and “jamming” technology.
LANdroids (Local Area Network droids)
DARPA also funded iRobot to research its LANdroids program.
The aim was to give soldiers reliable communications in urban areas by creating pocket-sized robots they could scatter as they moved through an area. The robots would each act as a node in a wireless communications network. As the soldiers move, the robots would autonomously move with them, filling gaps in the network.
According to iRobot, the LANdroid it created weighed around one pound, was highly mobile and used a flipper mechanism for self righting and obstacle climbing.
Following the DARPA research, iRobot has developed a throwable robot for soldiers that will be available from 2012. It says the robot could be used to investigate hard-to-access places such as tunnels and ditches.
The ultimate goal of the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) program is to create a vehicle that can fly anywhere in the world in less than an hour — while enduring temperatures in excess of 1,925 C (3,500 F).
DARPA has already produced and flown a test HTV-2 — an unmanned, rocket-launched aircraft that travels at Mach 20 (about 13,000 miles per hour). At that speed a flight between New York City and Los Angeles would take less than 12 minutes.
HTV-2 made its maiden flight in April 2010, but crashed into the Pacific after just nine minutes. A second flight, in August 2011, lasted a similar time before meeting the same end.
Following the second flight HTV-2 program manager Major Chris Schulz said: “We do not yet know how to achieve the desired control during the aerodynamic phase of flight. It’s vexing; I’m confident there is a solution. We have to find it.”