In defense of innovation

By Paul Dempsey |  No Comments  |  Posted: April 14, 2010
Topics/Categories: Embedded - Architecture & Design  |  Tags:

For the first time in four decades, a new book goes inside the Defense Department’s cutting-edge research agency DARPA.

As is often the case in his business, science writer Michael Belfiore’s last book begat his latest one, The Department of Mad Scientists. He was following the world of commercial rocketry, one that recently gave us the first privately funded spacecraft.

“And within that crew, there’s a lot of distrust of the government,” Belfiore says. “Many of them think that NASA led us to the moon, but then abandoned us there. Others have this entrepreneurial sense that you need to stay as far away as possible from Washington and bureaucracy and red tape, if you want to get things done.

“But they kept talking about this research organization called DARPA and their attitude got me interested as to what the hell this thing could be. Because what surprised me was that DARPA turned out to be a branch of the government itself—part of the biggest bureaucracy of all, the Department of Defense (DoD)—but it still somehow got an exemption from these guys.”

DARPA—or to give it its full name, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—has good reason not to broadcast too much about its work via the media. Its job is to fund and often kick start research in areas that might have some military application. Once the blue skies stuff has moved beyond proof-of-concept, it has to pass the work to specific branches of the armed forces—assuming, that is, it can find one willing to carry the effort forward.

Yet, as Belfiore’s super book illustrates, DARPA’s influence not just on the military but also on everyday life has been profound throughout its 50-year history. For example, it began as ARPA (although still part of the DoD) and some afternoon, several decades ago, one of its smart project managers suggested to the agency’s head that they might want to have a look at this computer networking stuff. He got the go-ahead there and then and the result was ARPANET, a name you should now recognize as one of the main progenitors of the Internet.

“It was also America’s first space agency. It was started early in 1958 as a response to the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. NASA came along later and took over,” says Belfiore. “But when [then President] Eisenhower decided to move space over to NASA, ARPA was lucky because when it was set up, it wasn’t limited to that one area. NASA didn’t make it obsolete.”

Instead, DARPA was liberated by the decision and has remained so until this day. “I still keep finding that they’ve funded all kinds of influential research,” says Belfiore. “It’s not just the Internet. They are involved in artificial intelligence, robotics, materials science—a huge number of things that have worked their way into our daily lives.”

Another unforeseen benefit of DARPA having been set up as a ‘quick and dirty’ response to Cold War tension is that it was born with a very flat, very unmilitary hierarchy. Again, it has retained this character. Project managers serve fixed terms, moving between the agency and the private sector. To this day, the idea that a manager can directly approach the boss and get a quick answer on a new idea or simply advance some brainstorming is seen as a strength.

However, all this has also meant that DARPA’s personnel is very fluid—not only is it constantly forming and concluding links to various companies and academic bodies, but also its own roster of project managers turns over by about 25% a year. “And that’s partly how I think I was able to finally get them talking,” says Belfiore.

Many of his initial attempts to secure the agency’s formal involvement in the book met with silence. “But, as you might expect with its maverick image, if you’re not from the press, if you want to do business with it, DARPA’s pretty open. You can go on the website and get the names and the contacts for any of the project managers, even the director, and you just get in touch. And that’s how I started talking to some of these guys, although very much off the record.

“When I finally did get [then director] Tony Tether to agree to do an interview, I went there to do it in person. It was supposed to be on the phone. But I went to see him and explained to him that I was focusing on the things DARPA had done and what it was doing that would have a wide benefit—because those were the things that interested me. By then we also had a TV project with National Geographic, so I could say, ‘This is going to be a good treatment for you guys.’

“And what he saw, I think, was a way to help him recruit, because every year they have to go out there and find so many people.”

In true DARPA fashion, Tether told Belfiore that he was ‘in’ on-the-spot. No mess. No fuss. Though given obvious national security issues, the author estimates that he had access to “at best” half of the agency’s ongoing activities as well as those completed projects that had been declassified. “But it did give you a sense of this very immediate, very direct way that DARPA works, how it gets things done,” says Belfiore.

It is an irony though that Belfiore now once more finds himself on the outside. It’s nothing personal, though. With the change of president, DARPA also changed director with Tether giving way to the agency’s first woman chief, Regina Dugan, a mechanical engineer and veteran of the agency from the 1990s. She in turn has brought in new people on the public affairs side.

“That’s how DARPA works though, it keeps refreshing itself,” says Belfiore. “And there are risks in that. I think one of the bigger ones is that some of the projects can fall in the ditch—their champions at the agency can leave or they don’t have sponsors to take them beyond that demonstration stage.”

One of the best parts of the book describes such a project, a robotic surgeon for use on battlefields developed by the renowned Stanford University spin-off, SRI International. Once before, the research went into a post-DARPA lull. On that occasion some of the work was repurposed in 1999 for the Da Vinci Surgical System that is now in civilian use (and which was upgraded only last year). Yet today, SRI’s latest military robodoc sits mothballed.

However, as Belfiore notes, such risks attend all cutting-edge research. Not everything will work. Not everything can find a home. As he looks at the Obama-era 

DARPA, he sees a potentially greater threat in the agency broadening its remit. “We’ve just seen ARPA-E funded—it was established under [President] Bush, but it’s got the money from this administration—and it aims to do for energy what DARPA does for defense. It’s adapting that same very flexible model to get some ideas moving forward,” says Belfiore. “A specific area but a lot of room to explore it.”

“What I hope is that we keep that same model with DARPA itself. There’s always this view that says it should broaden its work into civilian as well as military research, but I think that the military focus has worked for it. What I’m saying is, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

Regina Dugan’s earlier shift as a DARPA project manager did coincide with a previous attempt to increase the agency’s scope, one that is now regarded as having failed. “But you can’t say for certain from that, that she will want to move the agency back in that direction but in a different way or will want to head off any attempt to do so. It’s all speculation now because it’s also early days in her tenure.”

Nevertheless, Belfiore does note that some recent tenders and projects are very open in nature. One invited people to take part in a ‘Grand Challenge’ to identify where DARPA had released five balloons in the U.S., using social networking to coordinate the search. Another seeks to extend the involvement of women and minorities in information technology. However, the full scope of even such apparently ‘open’ ventures as these is open to interpretation.

What Belfiore has done, however, is set down a marker not only to define what the loose DARPA model has achieved for the agency itself, but also one that has lessons for how R&D can be approached more generally. And, as noted, there is now ARPA-E to test those theories.

The Department of Mad Scientists is published by Smithsonian Books. The National Geographic Channel’s documentary on DARPA, America’s Secret Weapon, continues to screen in rotation as part of the broadcaster’s series “Inside”.

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