If you, like me, spent countless hours playing Metal Gear Solid in middle/high school, you know that DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is one shadowy and scary government agency. But as weird as the world of Snake was, truth can be stranger than fiction.
Immune to the usual avenues of governmental oversight, DARPA operates with a $2.8 billion annual budget. Even though it’s part of the Department of Defense, DARPA doesn’t have much of a traditional chain of command and the multitude of geniuses employed there are completely off the leash.
Here are some the latest hyper-advanced tech and military projects DARPA’s got going on. Realistically, it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg.
Hey, wouldn’t it be great if bullets could steer themselves? Well that’s the premise behind EXACTO. According to DARPA, this project aims to dramatically increase the accuracy and speed with which snipers can dispatch their targets. EXACTO is a .50 caliber bullet that is capable of changing direction in flight. But DARPA’s not about to tell you how it works. The official image doesn’t show any kind of fins that could steer the bullet, so how it turns is anyone’s guess. EXACTO has been live fire-tested and was able to hit targets over a mile away that the gun wasn’t even aimed at.
2. ALASA (Airborne Launch Assist Space Access)
Rockets are expensive and launching satellites into space so that you can watch DirecTV can get very costly. The goal of ALASA is to find a way to launch a 100-pound satellite into low earth orbit (LEO) for less than a million dollars. To do so, the launch rocket will hitch a ride on an Air Force fighter plane like the F-15.
Of course, DARPA isn’t really concerned about people watching Game of Thrones or finding places with their GPS. It turns out that the military and various government agencies are always jockeying for position at the few rocket launch sites across the country. If they can find a way to launch a satellite from any old runway, though, it would solve a whole bunch of problems for the Department of Defense.
3. Revolutionizing Prosthetics
Remember when Darth Vader chopped Luke Skywalker’s hand off with a light saber and he got it replaced with a robot one? Well, DARPA has a program for that. It’s called Revolutionizing Prosthetics and its goal is to produce robotic arm and hand replacements that restore most (if not all) original functions with control coming directly from the amputee’s brain. The highly dexterous limbs produced are also being fitted to robots.
During the Cold War, the problem of keeping track of Soviet submarines was enough to give the Secretaries of Defense and Navy night sweats. Since the end of the USSR, that threat has somewhat diminished, but that hasn’t stopped DARPA from trying to squash it entirely. ACTUV is intended to be an autonomous submarine-tracking vessel roaming the world’s oceans, looking for enemy subs, following them around, and reporting their positions. It could also potentially take them out, if necessary. The ACTUV would motor around in the water for months at a time without any of the restrictions that come with having humans on board. Think of it as a sort of drone for the sea.
When a soldier gets sick on the battlefield it can be rather inconvenient to get him or her to a doctor to find out what’s wrong. That’s why DARPA is working on microscopic nanoparticles that swim around in the bodies of warfighters analyzing their health. The IVN program is also working on nanoparticles that can actively fight disease or injury. Who’s ready for their injection?
6. DARPA Robotics Challenge
Human beings are fragile creatures who react poorly to things like extreme heat or cold, poisonous gas, or nuclear radiation. Robots, on the other hand, aren’t the least bit bothered by such trifles. The DARPA Robotics Challenge is seeking to make a number of technological breakthroughs in the area of autonomous robotics such as increases in the strength, dexterity, and endurance possible for mechanical beings.
Ostensibly, the purpose is to build robots capable of cleaning up hazardous waste or performing other jobs that would be too dangerous for humans. The robots will be able to move and function on their own, under human supervision of course.
7. LS3 (Legged Squad Support System)
The LS3 looks a lot like a mad scientist’s dog. And that’s actually not far from the truth as the LS3 is hoping to become the soldier’s best friend. The Legged Squad Support System is designed to take some of the load off soldiers on the battlefield who can be laden with up to 100 pounds of weapons and equipment. The LS3 will tag along with small squads carrying around 400 pounds of their gear so they can move more quickly with their weapons. The four-legged stance is intended to tackle all kinds of tough terrain and keep up with the troops.
No word on whether it’s up for a game of fetch though.
Spy planes and satellites are expensive and limited in their ability to provide real-time images anywhere in the world. MOIRE is DARPA’s attempt at giving U.S. intelligence and military agencies the ability to to see anywhere, anytime.
To do so MOIRE is working to perfect something called an optical membrane. Thin polymer membranes will work similarly to the glass camera lenses used in satellite spy cameras, but at a fraction of the weight. Lower weight means that more of them can be launched into geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) for a given cost.
The membranes will unfold in space to make 66-foot wide lenses capable of seeing an object three feet across from 22,000 miles away. The ultimate aim of MOIRE is to create a network of satellites equipped with these Membrane Optic Imagers that will give the military omnipresent eyes in the skies. What could possibly go wrong?
The Warrior Web is one of the many solutions DARPA is trying to solve the problem of overburdened soldiers carrying 100-pound combat loads. Instead of a mechanical “dog” following soldiers around carrying their gear, what if each soldier were, well, stronger?
Without resorting to engineered super-soldiers à la Hollywood, Warrior Web uses a sort of mechanical exoskeleton to augment the soldier’s strength. The system will take some of the weight off of the wearer’s lower body without restricting movement or getting in the way of body armor. The goal is to do all this with a lightweight piece, and a power draw of less than 100 watts.
When he’s not playing Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation he got for his 8th grade graduation, David Burbachworks as a motorcycle journalist. His sporadic Twitter musings can be found @welivefreephoto.