There are plenty of things in our everyday life that directly result from some bottom-basement strange experiments. Take, for example, the internet, GPS, and even robots who do mundane housework chores.
For every one of those successes, though, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded, there are so many more strange failures. From outer space to the human brain, DARPA funds research aimed at keeping our military on the cutting edge of technology. But that doesn’t mean that its experiments are always successful.
But that’s part of its charm and, some say, part of its success. DARPA can exist outside of bureaucratic red tape to explore, experiment, and innovate. It isn’t subject to the same rules as all the other federal agencies that you might think of in terms of innovation, which ultimately means that it has fewer restrictions in play. That allows its inventors, designers, engineers, and scientists to really push limits.
Adding to that, DARPA doesn’t really have a budget. Well, there’s a loose one that’s generally reviewed annually just like all other government agencies, but its overall financial limitations are very few. That allows the agency to pour lots of money into strange and unusual projects in the hopes they’ll pay off. When you’re not worried about funding getting cut off, it’s a lot easier to see promise in zany innovation. As the military’s venture capitalists, DARPA is all about finding the next best thing.
But in its 62 years, there have been plenty of times when the innovation just fell flat. Sure, high risk makes for high reward, but that doesn’t always mean these innovations have practical uses.
Houses that repair themselves
Something that sounds straight out of a sci-fi movie, for sure. DARPA’s Engineering Living Materials program aims to create building materials that can be grown anywhere in the world and repair themselves when damaged. 3D tech helps make this research plan a reality, but DARPA still has a way to go.
This program could have a seriously beneficial impact on transfusable blood available for wounded service members, not to mention the rest of the world. It might also help reduce the risk of transmission during a transfusion. Blood pharming takes red cells from cell sources in a lab and then grows them. DARPA’s Blood Pharming program drastically reduces the cost associated with growing RBCs, but the project still needs more development.
Mechanical elephants + robotic infantry mules
Who needs a tank when you can have a lab-created elephant? At least, that’s what DARPA thought back in the 1960s when it began researching vehicles that would allow troops and equipment to move more freely in the dense jungles of Vietnam. Naturally, DARPA looked toward elephants since nothing says limber and agile like a thousand-pound animal. What started as a quest for a mechanical elephant led DARPA researchers down a strange path that ultimately ended in transporting heavy loads using servo-actuated legs. Fun fact: the director of DARPA didn’t even know about the project until it was in its final stages of research. He shut it down immediately, hoping that Congress wouldn’t hear of it and cut funding.
Fifty years later, DARPA was at it again – this time trying to create robotic infantry mules that would offset the heavy lifting challenges that can seriously affect troop health and morale. Currently, DARPA is working with a Boston-based robotics company to fine-tune its Legged Squad Support System, which is capable of carrying up to 400 pounds. The LSSS is designed to deploy with an infantry unit and be able to go on the same terrain as the squad without slowing down the mission.
Since its founding, DARPA continues to think outside the box. Of course, not every idea is golden, but that’s just part of innovation. If any of these ideas ever get out of the board room and really into the field, the next generation of soldiers will really have something to write home about.