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.
The agency has a fascination with animals – not cutting them up but copying them, a field called biomimetics. The gecko offers a model for figuring out a way to walk up walls. The octopus is an expert at camouflage. The blur of a fly's wings may someday be replicated in combat aircraft. And since dogs are the only mine detectors that can distinguish between explosives and metal, the agency has reportedly spent $25 million trying to create an artificial dog nose. But the real military rock star is the cockroach. Unrivaled in locomotive sophistication, the cockroach has six active legs that simultaneously perform three distinct tasks: The rear legs drive it forward, the middle two turn and lift the body during climbing, and the front legs act as sensors to determine where the next footholds will be. When a roach has to climb over something, it automatically selects from thousands of possible adjustments.
"They are the decathletes of the insect world," says Roger Quinn, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Case Western Reserve University. Quinn and his colleagues are at work on their fifth roachbot. Called Ajax, it's a full three feet long, weighs 33 pounds, and has artificial muscles. Within five years, Ajax's progeny could support troops in the field by toting supplies. As the models grow more sophisticated, soldiers should be able to ride them, or use them to ferry heavy equipment or even casualties. As one DARPA manager says, after studying the cockroach, "We're not sure the wheel's the way to go."
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