Oct 13 2014

DARPA Director Highlights Priority Projects

The Defense Department’s primary innovation arm is working on projects to thwart infectious diseases and secure information systems and data.

Creating rapid diagnoses and treatments for infectious diseases such as the Ebola virus and developing tools for tracking online criminal networks are a couple of the capabilities taking shape within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“Our role is to make the pivotal, early investments that change what’s possible, so that we can take these huge strides forward,” DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing last week in Phoenix. The event, touted as the world’s largest event for women technologists, is produced by the Anita Borg Institute and presented in partnership with the Association for Computing Machinery.

During her keynote address, Prabhakar highlighted three key areas in which the agency is focusing its research and development efforts.

Complex military systems

DARPA is reimagining the agility of electronic warfare systems that enable warfighters to communicate, control radars and perform other tasks. It can take years and tens of millions of dollars to build and launch advanced space capabilities, such as satellites. The agency is working on a program that will allow it to launch and operate small 100-pound satellites in low Earth orbit for about $1 million. The program is also exploring ways to launch satellites from conventional military aircraft, which could enable launches to be scheduled in 24 hours, instead of 24 months.


Part of DARPA’s biology work is focused on outpacing the spread of infectious diseases. “Ebola, of course, has caught everyone’s attention,” Prabhakar said. But data indicate there will be other flare-ups from infectious disease because of the growth in human population and global climate change driving the mosquito population north, as well as mosquito-borne diseases.

DARPA is working on ways to rapidly diagnose infected individuals so that it’s clear who has a particular disease and how the disease is spreading. There is also a need to rapidly provide therapies to stop infections and treat those who become infected. That work is getting a trial run as DARPA tries to “bring some of those capabilities into the fray with Ebola.” The agency is researching human antibodies that can protect against a disease such as Ebola.

Information Explosion

One question that DARPA hopes to answer: How do people trust the information that they rely on? “That’s not a trivial question,” Prabhakar noted. DARPA wants to know if there are fundamental technology approaches, tools and capabilities for designing secure systems.

A few weeks ago, DARPA demonstrated what it believes to be the world’s most secure unmanned aerial vehicles. The operating system for the small device was designed to be “mathematically unhackable for certain security properties,” Prabhakar said.

Prabhakar highlighted DARPA’s Memex program, which “seeks to develop the next generation of search technologies and revolutionize the discovery, organization and presentation of search results.”

Under the program, DARPA partnered with a law enforcement group in the Dallas area to identify web-based ads that included more than 400 phone numbers linked to known criminal offenses. The agency developed search technologies to identify the phone numbers, and law enforcement ran those numbers through its database. Thirty of them were traced back to fund transfers in regions around North Korea that may be connected to human trafficking networks, Prabhakar said.