DARPA: 10 Key 2012 Milestones for America's Leading-Edge R&D Agency
DARPA's Four-Legged Robots Demonstration
In September, DARPA's Legged Squad Support System (LS3) program demonstrated two robotic "pack-mule" prototypes for Marine Gen. James F. Amos, and DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar. The first platform underwent its initial outdoor test earlier in the year, and matured through continual testing and improvements to the point that two functioning platforms have started to run through the paces similar to what they could one day experience carrying gear for a squad of Marines or soldiers. The goal of the LS3 program is to demonstrate that a legged robot can unburden dismounted squad members by carrying their gear, autonomously following them through rugged terrain, and interpreting verbal and visual commands.
Programmers on the International Space Station
In March, DARPA said it was seeking students, professionals and the public to create algorithms enabling the capture of objects in space, where the absence of gravity presents a significant challenge for precision robotic maneuvering and operations. It may be possible to overcome that challenge by developing computer algorithms to simultaneously compensate for this limitation while directing precision operations. Such algorithms could benefit various space activities, including DARPA's Phoenix program, which is aimed at developing technologies to cooperatively harvest and reuse valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in geosynchronous orbit. DARPA's InSPIRE program (International Space Station SPHERES Integrated Research Experiments) is sponsoring the Zero Robotics Autonomous Space Capture Challenge to develop such algorithms.
Review of HTV-2 Second Test Flight Concludes
In April, following an extensive seven-month analysis of data collected from the second flight of DARPA's Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (HTV-2) in 2011, an independent engineering review board investigating the cause of a flight anomaly completed its report. The report findings validated the vehicle's aerodynamic design and uncovered new information regarding the thermal material properties of the vehicle.
DARPA's LS3 Project
The agency's project to help soldiers in the field is getting a lot of attention. Today's dismounted soldier can be saddled with more than 100 pounds of gear, resulting in physical strain, fatigue and degraded performance. Because of this, reducing the load on these fighters is a major point of emphasis for defense research and development. The Army has identified physical overburden as one of its top five science and technology challenges. That's where DARPA's LS3 project comes in. In February 2012, the LS3 prototype underwent its first outdoor exercise, demonstrating the ability to follow a person using its "eyes"—sensors that allow the robot to distinguish between trees, rocks, terrain obstacles and people.
DARPA Offers $2 Million Prize in Robotics Competition
In April, DARPA said it was seeking hardware, software, modeling and gaming developers to link with emergency response and science communities to design robots capable of supervised, autonomous response to simulated disaster. Basic robots are already in use in emergency response, industry, defense, health care and education. DARPA offered a $2 million prize to help push the state of the art in robotics beyond today's capabilities in support of the DOD's disaster recovery mission. DARPA's Robotics Challenge launched in October 2012. Teams were sought to compete in challenges involving staged disaster-response scenarios in which robots will have to successfully navigate a series of physical tasks corresponding to anticipated, real-world disaster-response requirements.
DARPA's Cheetah Robot Runs 28 mph
In September, DARPA's Cheetah robot—already the fastest legged robot in history, according to the agency—broke its own land speed record of 18 mph. In the process, Cheetah also surpassed another very fast mover: Usain Bolt. According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, Bolt set the world speed record for a human in 2009 when he reached a peak speed of 27.78 mph for a 20-meter split during the 100-meter sprint. Cheetah was recently clocked at 28.3 mph for a 20-meter split. Cheetah had a slight advantage over Bolt as it ran on a treadmill—the equivalent of a 28.3 mph tail wind—but most of the power the robot used was to swing and lift its legs fast enough, not to propel itself forward.
DARPA Clears the Path for Advanced Communications, Sensors
In July, DARPA researchers created the world's first solid-state receiver to demonstrate gain at 0.85 terahertz (THz), according to DARPA. This is the latest breakthrough in the DARPA THz Electronics program in its quest for transistor-based electronics that will enable electronic capabilities at THz frequencies. DARPA officials said this was progress toward the second major technical milestone on the way to 1.03THz integrated circuits. Previous milestones included demonstrations at 0.67THz. Operating at these high frequencies enables a host of DOD electronics capabilities, such as advanced communication and sensor systems.
Eye-Enhancing Virtual-Reality Contact Lenses
Currently being developed by DARPA researchers at Washington-based Innovega iOptiks are contact lenses that enhance normal vision by allowing a wearer to view virtual- and augmented-reality images without the need for bulky apparatus. Instead of oversized virtual-reality helmets, digital images are projected onto tiny full-color displays that are very near the eye. These novel contact lenses allow users to focus simultaneously on objects that are close up and far away. This would improve a person's ability to use tiny portable displays while sill interacting with the surrounding environment.
Seeking Imagery Researchers
In July, DARPA began looking for researchers and scientists to explore the unknown in the areas of visual and geospatial data analysis. Researchers will participate in a short-fuse, crucible-style environment to invent new approaches to the identification of people, places, things and activities from still or moving defense and open-source imagery. "A lot can happen when you put seriously intelligent, seriously motivated people in a room with a mission and a deadline," said Michael Geertsen, DARPA program manager and the force behind the Innovation House Study. "We are inviting a new generation of innovators to try out ideas in an environment that encourages diverse solutions and far-out thinking." In Phase I, teams are expected to produce an initial design and demonstrate in software the crucial capabilities that validate their approach. In Phase II, teams are expected to complete and demonstrate a functional software configuration as a proof of concept. Teams demonstrating sufficient progress in Phase I will receive Phase II funding.
Investments in Extreme Hypersonics
DARPA's research and development in stealth technology during the 1970s and 1980s led to the world's most advanced radar-evading aircraft, giving the United States a key strategic national security advantage. However, more countries are catching up, with improvements in stealth and counter-stealth technologies. Restoring that battle-space advantage requires advanced speed, reach and range, and hypersonic technologies could provide the dominance once afforded by stealth to support a range of varied future national security missions. Extreme hypersonic flight at Mach 20—20 times the speed of sound—would enable defense personnel to get anywhere in the world in under an hour, an area of research where significant scientific advancements have eluded researchers for decades. Programs by DARPA, the Army and the Air Force in recent years have led to more information about this challenging subject.