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What Is DARPA and What Do They Do?

DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This is an agency which belongs to the Department of Defense in the United States. Among other tasks, it is responsible for developing technologies for military use, using the most cutting-edge tools available on the planet, and investing millions of dollars.

History And Mission Of DARPA

A statue of President General Dwight D. Eisenhower who formed ARPA the predecessor of DARPA

In 1958, with the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the governmental research agency, A.R.P.A. (Advanced Research Projects Agency) was organized in the United States in response to the technological and military challenges of Russia, from which the foundations of the future global computer network Internet would emerge a decade later. The agency, under the control of the Department of Defense, will be organized independently of the military research and development community.

Its mission over the next several decades will be to develop and provide unconventional technological applications for U.S. defense by expanding the technological frontier in favor of a lean but flexible, unconstrained organization staffed by elite scientists. A.R.P.A. will be responsible for much of the groundbreaking computer and communications research in the United States for years to come.


Biotechnology cartoon infographic

Today, DARPA’s initiatives are developed through its six main offices: Biotechnology, Defensive Sciences, Computer Innovation, Microsystems Technology, Tactical Technology, and Strategic Technology. More than 250 lines of research depend on them. Robots capable of feeding animals, devices that make you run faster, programmable matter, liquid robots, bullets that turn around, invisible uniforms, among other projects, make up DARPA’s wide-ranging catalog.

  1. ChemBots, The Liquid Robots – This project plays with ergonomics and the physics of matter. The agency is working on these robot prototypes that are intended to replace soldiers on the battlefield. With this development, it will solve military problems when entering areas that are difficult to access, thanks to its ability to deform and stretch enough to pass through openings.
  2. Jetpack 4MM – This DARPA development involves the creation of a device that is carried on the back and serves as a propellant to increase running speed. It was christened 4MM. In addition to making the user go faster, the goal of the jetpack is also to reduce fatigue. Specifically, what DARPA is looking for is for a soldier loaded with its equipment to be able to cover an entire mile in four minutes or less with the jetpack’s momentum.
  3. T.A.L.O.S. Project – DARPA’s goal with T.A.L.O.S. (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) is to create the next generation of soldiers by supplying them with uniforms capable of solving all adversities automatically. The agency says T.A.L.O.S. will offer superhuman strength, increased ballistic protection, provide an exoskeleton to carry heavy equipment, liquid armor capable of stopping bullets, a built-in computer, and, of course, night vision.
  4. E.A.T.R. – Its meaning is Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot; it is an autonomous vehicle that will be able to take its energy from various sources, one of them, organic matter. E.A.T.R. will be able to process its food and convert it into volts to power its electronic brain. It has an arm equipped with a gripper and a chainsaw, and a biomass chamber capable of digesting whatever its chainsaw cuts. In theory, he will be able to cut up pieces of trees or animal remains with his saw to “eat” them for energy.
  5. Project E.X.A.C.T.O. – This development promises to break any physical and natural force. The agency is no longer looking for laser-guided bullets but to develop a rifle that can modify the trajectory of .50 caliber projectiles once they have left the end of their barrel. DARPA has invested 15 million euros in developing this new generation of projectiles that can even bend to go around an obstacle. It is known that the bullets will be actively controlled by including electronics and control surfaces onboard the projectile.
  6. Invisible Military Uniforms – The agency has developed a composite that allows soldiers to remain unseen as they perform on the battlefield. It is one more of the so-called metamaterials, i.e., materials that have properties that are not common. In general, scientists achieve amazing materials by directly manipulating their molecular structure. These protectors make it possible to disguise the soldiers’ figures by making electromagnetic waves “flow” around them.

How Does It Work?

DARPA report directly to the highest representatives of the Pentagon in Washington

Its operational structure is extremely flat and non-bureaucratic. It looks for bright minds as project leaders, who come in under 4-6 year, non-renewable contracts. The goal is to avoid institutionalizing ideas and for everyone working at DARPA to see it not as a career but as an opportunity to add value and to be willing to question and take significant intellectual risks.

DARPA defines itself as “anti-bureaucratic” and relies on four basic factors:

  • Limited management term for managers. Those who reach decision-making positions in the agency arrive with the understanding that their management term is limited and short-term (no more than four years). Their badges have expiration dates stamped on them, which gives them a sense of urgency to accomplish their objectives.
  • Sense of mission. If the place where you work has a track record of success, it’s hard not to feel inspired (and pressured) to continue the accomplishments.
  • Confidence and autonomy. The freedom to make decisions without the need to obtain an endless chain of approvals is critical to innovation at DARPA.
  • Risk-taking and tolerance for failure. When trying things that have never been done, failures are part of the terrain.

The head of DARPA is Dr. Stefanie Tompkins. Officially, just under 300 people work for DARPA, managing a budget of around $3 billion, plus classified items. Those in charge of the agency report directly to the highest representatives of the Pentagon.

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