DARPA: A Glimpse Into the Future

Humanoid military robot

The innovative Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is currently testing materials that will allow US warfighters to scale walls while carrying a full combat load. Today, Michael Aiken reviews this and other DARPA-based projects that are set to shape the future of warfighting, medicine and more.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has offered a glimpse into its Z-Man Program, which is currently testing a material that allows humans to scale walls with the aid of climbing paddles. The project was inspired by the biological properties of geckos, whose toes allow the animal to hang by a single toe from nearly any surface. In the future, U.S. warfighters will be able to scale any wall while carrying a full combat load.

Given DARPA’s latest step toward the human Spider Man, it is the perfect time to look at other recent achievements and ongoing projects. The sections below on DARPA’s robots, neuroscience research, and future-tech gadgets provide a unique glimpse into the future of warfighting, medicine, and even daily life. Beyond The Incredible Spider Man, some ideas on the drawing board are reminiscent of the futuristic technologies seen in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and James Cameron’s Avatar.


Boston Dynamics, a robotics company purchased by Google in December 2013, is a key player in DARPA’s robotics initiatives. Boston Dynamics boasts an impressive lineup of robots, including WildCat (faster than the average human), BigDog (see also AlphaDog, a pack mule-type robot capable of throwing cinderblocks), and Atlas (everyone’s favorite humanoid). Other lesser-known robots in development include LS3 (a large rough-terrain robot), Sand Flea (a surveillance robot capable of jumping multiple stories), and RHex (a smaller rough-terrain robot that can jump, swim, and climb). These robots, each with their own niche purpose, will certainly change the landscape of modern warfare in the next decade.

Unsurprisingly, DARPA continues its research on artificial intelligence, in an attempt to build autonomous machines that think independently like humans. Unlike dystopian killer robots in sci-fi films, these autonomous beings would rely on microscopic wires that mimic brain synapses, rather than lines of computer code gone awry. This project, Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM), is still underway and the Pentagon is miles away from incorporating this technology into weapons systems (e.g., drones); however, in several decades, DARPA-funded intelligence studies could radically change daily life. According to UCLA professor Yong Chen “the project will lead to…the creation of the next generation of electronic circuits with intelligent behaviors…and dynamic interactions/control of biological systems.”

Speaking of sci-fi, DARPA’s Avatar project, reminiscent of the film of the same name, involves soldiers “practically inhabiting the mechanical bodies of androids.” These surrogate robots eventually can take the soldiers’ place on the battlefield, at least in the most dangerous combat zones—just like the James Cameron movie.


In the same vein, DARPA’s numerous neurological programs operate on the threshold of robotics and human biology. One such program is System-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS), which seeks to create an implanted, closed-loop diagnostic and therapeutic system for treating [neuropsychological] illness.” In layman’s terms, this means implanting a chip into a patient’s skull to “’teach’ the brain to ‘unlearn’” behaviors that accompany disorders, which will aid numerous veterans diagnosed with neuropsychological disorders after returning home from combat.

Restoring Active Memory (wittingly called RAM) is a similar memory project that involves chip implants in the skull—the role of this particular chip is to record memories of soldiers. If successful, this project could lead to further understanding of how to stimulate the right regions of the brain for quicker learning, reduced reaction times, and other benefits.

Another DARPA-funded program attempted to revolutionize prosthetic arms to aid returning amputees—Proto 2 successfully developed a thought-controlled prosthetic arm. The machine interface, known as the Deka Arm System (now FDA-approved), is able to use nerve and muscle signals to mimic human arm and hand motions. In one test, Fred Downs, a recipient of the “Luke arm” (nicknamed after Luke Skywalker’s robotic arm in Star Wars), was able to successfully transfer eggs from one carton to another without breaking a single egg.

The closest thing to mad science as of recent, DARPA scientists have figured out how to hack animals’ central nervous system functions—in other words, a partial form of mind-control. One successful mind-control study focused on changing the color of a squid’s iridescent skin, while another successfully captured the thoughts of a rat and transferred its brain waves to another rat over the internet, causing the second rat to mimic the actions of the first rat. Several adventurous DARPA-funded neuroscience/mind-control studies are ongoing, and are worth learning about.

Future Tech

Last but not least, DARPA’s future-tech research leaves little to the imagination—lasers, lightning guns, and robotic avatar interfaces just to name a few. One notable category of research that will alter the future practice of warfare is lasers. Currently, DARPA is working on the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS), seeking to create a high-powered laser weapon system that can be mounted on aircrafts as a defense against surface-to-air missiles.

In partnership with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, DARPA’s Project Endurance seeks to mount these devices on manned and unmanned aircrafts, including drones, by 2016. In other laser-related news, the U.S. Army successfully tested a gun two years ago that shoots lightning. This Laser-Induced Plasma Channel (LIPC) uses a laser to create an electromagnetic path to the target, which directs the electrical current shortly thereafter.

If Tesla-in-a-gun is not your cup of tea, consider the other gadgets in production or otherwise on the drawing board. The successful Chip-Scale Vacuum Micro Pump (CSVMP) program will revolutionize national security procedures for years to come, in airports at home and on micro-drones in combat areas. This penny-sized chip has efficient sensors, which can be used to detect chemical and biological weapons—as this technology becomes cheaper, this device can be incorporated into consumer electronics.

Turning humans into passwords seems farfetched, but DARPA researchers have been working on ways to make traditional electronic/computer passwords obsolete. The Active Authentication program seeks to make forgetting one’s password a thing of the past—additionally, the success of this program would make systems more difficult to hack with software biometrics. DARPA’s research on biometrics offers a way to look for “cognitive fingerprints,” including mouse-tracking and forensic authorship (the unique way a person uses language), but could also include heartbeats. The latter ‘fingerprint’ is the center of DARPA’s Biometrics-at-a-distance program, which intends to identify human life behind walls, under rubble, and in crowds.

But Active Authentication is not the only way to locate people. DARPA’s 2008 Visibuilding program uses radar signals to construct 3D maps of buildings, including people and weapons inside (seeing through walls like Superman!) It is likely that this technology was used to construct a test site of Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound before the successful raid in May 2011.

Flying cars may become a reality sooner rather than later—DARPA’s Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) initiative seeks to revolutionize ground-based transportation to avoid threats from improvised explosive devices in conflict zones. The Transformer (TX) program focuses on creating autonomous ground vehicles that can also fly to support U.S. troops. If successful, the flying cars seen in The Jetsons and other sci-fi worlds will be soon to follow.

Finally, one recent DARPA project to create a pop-up, bulletproof wall-in-a-can is underway—Block Access to Deny Entry (BlockADE) was launched recently, and it’s open season for any individual or group with a good idea. A wall-in-a-can certainly would be a practical gadget for Batman’s utility belt, but even more useful for a soldier in a dangerous combat situation. With DARPA’s recent Z-Man success and the preexisting Visibuilding tech, the U.S. military is well on its way to possessing the powers of Spiderman, Superman, and Batman combined. But DARPA’s innovations don’t just affect the battlefield—the medical and daily-life implications at home are just as radical, and just as thought provoking.

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