DARPA Chief Describes Promising Future Technologies

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will employ enhanced funding to discover technologies used to defend the homeland, bolster deterrence and aid service members engaged in counterterror and counterinsurgency fights, the agency’s director said here today.

Speaking with the Defense Writers’ Group, Steven H. Walker said his agency is working on artificial intelligence projects, hypersonic technologies, promising biological technologies and advanced electronics, among other technologies.

“We understand we are in competition with countries like Russia and China,” he said.

Competition With Russia, China

Russia and China are investing heavily in hypersonic technologies involving aircraft that travel between Mach 4 (about 3,070 mph) and Mach 8 (about 6,100 mph) and the two countries also worked on the capability to increase the range of their missiles and decrease the chance that they could be shot down.

DARPA, the Air Force and NASA have been working together for years on the technology. At the beginning of the administration, Walker approached Defense leaders with the need for a national initiative to develop hypersonics.

“We did push for a comprehensive initiative in the budget process this fall,” he said. “We did receive a budget increase at DARPA and some of the services to do more in hypersonics. I don’t think we got all we wanted, but it was a good first step.”

Walker looks forward to working with Mike Griffin, the new undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and former NASA administrator. “He understands this problem very well and I’ve been told by Mike personally that this will be one of his top priorities,” Walker said.

DARPA has supported experiments with hypersonic capabilities and the boost in funding will allow the agency to assess what can be done with the systems, how effective they are and how affordable they will be.

He expects test flights next year.

Laser Technology

DARPA has also pushed the area of solid state lasers being tested at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Service members may use directed-energy weapons in a tactical environment, soon. “These are not the size of a [Star Wars] light saber, but they can drive it around,” Walker said.

In space systems, the agency is looking at the feasibility of very capable low-Earth-orbit satellites to handle a variety of needs from command and control to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to tactical warfighting.

“We’ve been talking about this for a while,” Walker said. “The difference today, is the technology has moved along to allow you to think about having some pretty capable small satellites that you can put in at (low-Earth orbit) and in larger constellations. We are starting a program called Blackjack, … which is looking at how we leverage the commercial sector and what they want to do at [low-Earth orbit].”

This would be naturally resilient because it would force an adversary to target a large number of satellites. They would be in low-Earth orbit and relatively cheap to place — current satellites are in geosynchronous orbit more than 22,300 miles above the Earth.

Artificial Intelligence

The director believes the United States is not falling behind Russia and China in artificial intelligence. AI has been on DARPA’s plate since the 1960s, he said, and he makes a distinction between “autonomy at rest” and “autonomy in motion” when he discussed AI. Autonomy at rest are applications that use judgment to help humans make decisions or to search an area or to collate data.

Autonomy in motion deals with AI systems operating on their own, and while there is a place for these it stops short of the lethal force decision. Walker said the United States will not allow a machine to make that judgment.

Walker believes there needs to be more research in biological fields. He said DARPA is looking at developing flu vaccines in days rather than months or years. He want the agency to look at ways to protect the nation from biological attack. He wants to look at the issue of gene editing that China, for example, is pushing ahead with. “Biology is a fast-paced field and certainly you can see China is making a big investment in DNA sequencing and their DNA database,” he said.

The United States also needs to invest in advanced electronics, Walker said. China is looking to bring all electronics manufacturing on shore.

“We’re looking at the electronics resurgence initiative,” he said. “This is $150 million to look at new designs and manufacturing techniques to bridge the gap between our global multinational companies in this country that are at the forefront of electronics in this country and the defense industrial base.”

DARPA at its heart is a risk-taking organization, Walker said. World-class scientists are there for between three and five years and then move on.

“We get a lot of support from the White House, the Congress, the Pentagon — apolitical support — to do the right thing, to take risks,” the director said. “They give us a lot of freedom to make decisions and to think differently and to start and stop our own programs. If you want an organization to produce out-of-the-box ideas and projects, to continue to disrupt the status quo and to question, then you want that organization to have some autonomy and flexibility.”

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)