When you look at a cockroach, you may see an annoying pest, but the imagineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) see something beautiful: a perfect six-legged prototype for a vehicle of the future. And DARPA draws inspiration from stranger things than bugs. Anything goes, as long as there's the possibility – even the remote possibility – that it will contribute to some aspect of U.S. military capability. And that covers a surprising amount of ground. According to Donald Ingber, a professor of bioengineering at Harvard Medical School, DARPA "is the only place that understands that true revolutionary leaps require that you not always know where you're going. Eight or nine projects fail, but then one changes the world."
Inside a plain red granite building in Arlington, Virginia, the high-tech, low-profile minds at DARPA aim to make the seemingly unimaginable routine. While the agency acts as a clearinghouse for hundreds of blue-sky projects in development and has a massive budget, DARPA tends to stay under the radar. Yet it's been in business for since 1958: The agency was one-half of Eisenhower's response to the Sputnik challenge. NASA was the other half. Both agencies were given the same urgent brief: Regain our technological lead and keep it.
NASA was making big news launching satellites and manned space flights, while DARPA was quietly creating ARPANET, a decentralized communication system designed to protect the flow of information among scientists. That project is now better known as the Internet.
In fact, DARPA spin-offs are everywhere. The late Michael Dertouzos, of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT, gave DARPA credit for half the major breakthroughs in computing, from the Global Positioning System to the mouse. The agency's wide-ranging imagination is fueled by its shuffling management style. Nearly all the program managers, roughly 150 at present, rotate in and out within about four years, back to the corporations and universities they came from, or to other jobs. Old brains out, new brains in.
And the things those brains dream up! Here are the most impressive technologies to emerge from the agency over the last few decades. The most impressive ones we know about anyway.
In 1976, shortly after an Israeli commando team stormed a terrorist-occupied plane in Entebbe, Uganda, Israel announced that the soldiers responsible for quickly executing the highjackers had trained for their mission in a replica airport. This type of mission modeling has remained a huge focus for military engineers over the last 37 years. The first efforts made by DARPA anticipated Google Maps by employing cars outfitted with cameras to drive around urban areas taking enough pictures to enable a digital walk-through. Since then, things have gotten even more outlandish. Two years ago, DARPA announced it had created the Urban Photonic Sandtable Display, a 360-degree 3-D holographic display designed to assist battle planners. The technology, which does not require glasses, is completely interactive, allowing users to rotate the display and zoom in on specific details. Created by Zebra Imaging, the technology looks as though it was inspired by 'Avatar,' but research and development was under way long before that 3-D blockbuster hit the screens.