Government Spending

50 Years of DARPA: GPS, Telepathic Spies, and Bionic Arms

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DARPA

Whatever qualms one might have about a semi-super secret defense agency with a mandate to invent "surprising" military technologies, you have to give the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) some credit. It's not like with the space program: All they can claim to have contributed to civilian life is Velcro and Tang (and even those claims are disputed). DARPA has given us the Internet, GPS, and faster wireless communications. They failed to give us telepathic spies.

New Scientist looks back at 50 years of DARPA, and comes up with a list of the good, the bad, and the promising. Of course, we'll probably never know about the really good stuff DARPA has managed to come up with.

Great success!:

GPS: We would be quite literally lost without today's global positioning system (GPS). But long before the current NAVSTAR GPS satellites were launched, came a constellation of just five DARPA satellites called Transit. First operational in 1960, they gave US Navy ships hourly location fixes as accurate as 200 metres.

Total failure (but awesome, and immortalized in science fiction):

Orion: Set in motion shortly after DARPA was created, Project Orion aimed to drive an interplanetary spacecraft by periodically dropping nuclear bombs out of its rear end.

The entire craft was designed like a giant shock absorber with the back covered in thick shielding to protect human passengers. Concerns about nuclear fallout and the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty ended the project in the early 1960s.

Promising:

Bionic Limbs: DARPA wants prosthetic limbs that are "fully functional, neurologically controlled and have normal sensory capabilities" and is funding scientists who are making serious progress.

For example, Video of a bionic arm built by the creator of the Segway shows impressive dexterity, while other teams have built prototype prosthetics controlled by thought alone.

Not mentioned, but something I'm pretty pumped about: A nasal spray that dramatically reduces the need for sleep.

More DARPA here. And Best. Logo. Ever. (above).

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  1. I hope Art Bell is celebrating it this week. His callers are slightly more entertaining than many of the H&R commentors on topics like this.

  2. Second Post!

  3. A nasal spray that dramatically reduces the need for sleep.

    Yeah, it’s called “meth.” But I didn’t know you could get it in spray form. Progress!

  4. I pay my taxes. Where’s my flying car and eye-lasers!

  5. Back in my supercomputer center days, DARPA was big into VR and haptic interfaces. I figure they’re planning on unleashing full-immersion porn any day now.

  6. Thank goodness our government is busy doing things that no private companies could possibly ever do!

  7. I figure they’re planning on unleashing full-immersion porn any day now.

    That would fit with the bionic body parts, too.

  8. NASA likes to take credit for cell phones and modern weather forecasting, as they were the agency that began the US satellite industry.

    neither of those, however, is as refresing and nutritious as Tang.

  9. They failed to give us telepathic spies.

    Hee-hee!

  10. They failed to give us telepathic spies.

    O Rly?

  11. And if Polywell fusion works out, the Internet might be only the second most important invention to come out of DARPA.

    http://www.strout.net/info/science/polywell/index.html

  12. KMW, you are consistently disappointing when you discuss technology. The space program was deeply involved in, solely or cooperatively, many major technological advances including computers and remote medicine. Those are just the two that pop off the top of my head.

    Do a little research next time.

  13. Information wants ro be free.

    Fight back, cyber punks.

  14. The space program was deeply involved in, solely or cooperatively, many major technological advances including computers and remote medicine.

    Isn’t the shuttle still using 1980s computers?

    I wonder if they have stacks of those 5″ square floppies.

  15. All they can claim to have contributed to civilian life is Velcro and Tang (and even those claims are disputed).

    It’s a fact! The Vulcans invented Velcro!:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_Creek

  16. I firmly believe that NASA was a good thing. Its time has passed; it should be dismantled; and private enterprise should take over.

  17. I hope Art Bell is celebrating it this week. His callers are slightly more entertaining than many of the H&R commentors on topics like this.

    Ah, I miss listening to Art Bell. Is he still on the air?

    There was no topic too obscure to show up on his radar. I remember a whole episode devoted to ghost cats: people who feel the specters of their dear departed kitty cats gingerly walking over them in bed at night.

  18. Isn’t the shuttle still using 1980s computers?

    386’s I believe. The system design does not allow for upgrades.

  19. I wonder if they have stacks of those 5″ square floppies.

    And they went back to 8″ floppies in 2010.

    BTW, who is going to the Time Travel convention at MIT? A buddy from 2035 said it sucked, he even had to guess what thread it was in because those nerds had not yet discovered infinite thread law.

  20. The rarity of this state sponsored achievement owes much to the creative genius of Admiral Poindexter. Poindexter was a noted eccentric who had strange ideas like setting up prizes for private firms instead of centralized development, and even stranger, using gambling games to predict terrorism. Makes me wonder how he made it in the military…

    Regardless he was fired for the gambling/terrorism idea cause liberals got their panties in a wicked knot over it, but his vision and methods live on at DARPA.

  21. Isn’t the shuttle still using 1980s computers?

    386’s I believe. The system design does not allow for upgrades.

    386s must have been an upgrade. The shuttle started flying circa 1981. I’m pretty sure the 286 didn’t even exist then.

  22. Orion may have been a failure, but it was more because of the way nukes were viewed than the technical problems. Not that it would have worked, but it couldn’t get off the ground (no pun acknowledged) due to PR, not engineering.

    I loved the Orion-drive ship in Dan Simmon’s Olympos.

    other teams have built prototype prosthetics controlled by thought alone.

    I want armies of monkeys controlled by thought alone.

  23. Google is my bestest friend. April ’81 for first shuttle flight. The 286 microprocessor debut was 1982. The 386 came out in ’85.

  24. I wonder if velcro could have been invented in the private sector if we had spent maybe $500 on clothing research instead of $500 billion on space research.

    Spending all those billions directly on AIDS research is obviously fruitless. We should just go to Mars, and NASA will spin off the cure.

  25. kinnath,

    one of the current programs NASA is more proud of is Near Earth Asteroid Tracking. given that Earth shows evidence of several major asteroid impacts, each of which likely wiped out a majority of life on the planet, keeping track of asteroids might be a good idea for our species.

    please explain how private enterprise fills this role.

  26. FTA :Failures – The mechanical elephant.

    Holy crap!
    Isn’t this pretty much an AT-AT? Why would we have stopped this? It was probably powered by pure awesome.

  27. imp, do you know what the first sign of AIDS is?

  28. please explain how private enterprise fills this role.

    The Insurance Industry, of course!

  29. do you know what the first sign of AIDS is?
    Takin’ one in the back door?

  30. toshiro_mifune,

    If that mechanical elephant is what I think it is, I saw it on PBS in the 1970s I think. Had an unwiedly power and hydralic supply.

  31. tm,

    Close!

    Pounding sensationn in one’s butt!

  32. 386s must have been an upgrade. The shuttle started flying circa 1981. I’m pretty sure the 286 didn’t even exist then.

    Old memories from the late 80’s . . The autoflight system was updated and used i386 processors.

    From http://mae.pennnet.com/display_article/97983/32/ARTCL/none/none/1/It's-not-your-father's-Space-Shuttle-any-more/

    The current upgrade to a MEDS cockpit uses three Intel 386-based Integrated Data Processors (IDP) to generate information for the display, McHenry says. The IDPs receive their commands from the General Purpose Computer (GPC) for the cockpit avionics, he adds. The GPC is the AP-101S computer from Lockheed Martin Systems Integration-Owego. The IDP uses the old 386 microprocessor because certifying flight hardware takes a long time, McHenry says.

    Your desktop printer probably has a faster processor that most avionics systems flying today.

  33. A time warp scene
    A cy-fi story
    A dirt coloured love
    Hey hope for glory
    I like to fight,
    I kill global oppression
    If I quit, no hope of redemption

  34. Imp, actually, the cure for aids is more likely to be found on uranus

  35. bb,

    LOL!

  36. Guy Montag – I saw it on PBS in the 1970s

    Don’t ruin my fantasy! Lucas was bad enough. I have visions of takin’ one of these taxpayer funded monstrosities to cruise sleazy Italian girls on the Via Appia.

    KA-CHONK
    WHIRRR
    KA-CHONK
    WHIRRR
    “Yo, `sup baby”

  37. toshiro_mifune,

    Try a 2010 Chrysler Plymouth Superbird. Trust me, I am from the future.

  38. one of the current programs NASA is more proud of is Near Earth Asteroid Tracking. given that Earth shows evidence of several major asteroid impacts, each of which likely wiped out a majority of life on the planet, keeping track of asteroids might be a good idea for our species.

    please explain how private enterprise fills this role.

    Clearly a task suited for a government to run not a private enterprise. However, that does not justify the space shuttle, the space station, or a whole lot of things NASA does.

    NASA, the FAA, and alot of 60’s organizations need to be dismantled and reorganized. Tasks best handle by private enterprise should be handled by private enterprise. Tasks that need govnerment support should be put into newer, leaner organizations to do those jobs.

    I fervently support DAPRA and the research arm of NASA and alot of other government lead research (in contrast to most of the folks in the libertarian movement).

  39. Computer-generated info domains are the new frontiers.

    Information is the power and currency of the virtual world we inhabit.

    So we mistrust authority, cyberpunks are the true rebels and cyberculture is coming under the radar of ordinary society.

  40. 386’s I believe.

    No, the original shuttle computers were designed in the early 70’s, long before anything remotely resembling a 386 existed. They were IBM AP101 computers, used to control the avionics in other older aircraft as well.

    The system design does not allow for upgrades.

    Not exactly. From wiki:

    In 1990, the original computers were replaced with an upgraded model AP-101S, which has about 2.5 times the memory capacity (about 1 megabyte) and three times the processor speed (about 1.2 million instructions per second).

    Though, upgrades or no, they are indeed archaic by todays standards.

    Do a little research next time.

    Hmmm… yes.

  41. Off to a meeting, do cvidaniye!

  42. The second paragraph shouldn’t be italicized, my bad.

  43. I can’t believe no one has mentioned the human catapult. That thing looked awesome. And you could use for so much other stuff. Like launcing a sofa to the third floor.

    Let’s see…ah, here it is.

  44. Best. Logo. Ever.

    And this just might be the Worst. Logo. Ever.

  45. My father worked on the Orion project and to this day a little, official model of the ship sits in his office (he’s in his 80’s). This post brought back some memories… Shame on you.

  46. Poindexter was a noted eccentric who had strange ideas like setting up prizes for private firms instead of centralized development, and even stranger, using gambling games to predict terrorism. Makes me wonder how he made it in the military…

    If this is the same Poindexter, he almost didn’t.

    An anecdote in ‘the nightinggale’s song’ talks about his leadership style, that he allowed subordinates a lot a leeway to experiment and take risks. The ship he was captaining almost collided with another during an unrep because he allowed the OOD too much slack.

    And of course the focus of the book was how this same style allowed Ollie North to do his freelancing.

  47. The ship he was captaining almost collided with another during an unrep because he allowed the OOD too much slack.

    I think that is an exaggeration. The Philidelphia did not have a companion time traveling vessle.

  48. Google is my bestest friend. April ’81 for first shuttle flight. The 286 microprocessor debut was 1982. The 386 came out in ’85.

    I am deeply suspicious of this result.

    IIRC, the PC (8088) came out in ’81 and XT (still an 8088) was a year or two later.

    I started college in ’91. The ‘higher end’ computer to buy was a 386, specificially a P(o)S-2. The standard model was the AT (286).

  49. And this just might be the Worst. Logo. Ever.

    Is that the Rectory?

  50. IIRC, the PC (8088) came out in ’81 and XT (still an 8088) was a year or two later.

    Wasn’t one of those an 8086?

  51. All they can claim to have contributed to civilian life is Velcro and Tang (and even those claims are disputed).

    Disputed?

    Mestral’s idea met with resistance and even laughter, but the inventor ‘stuck’ by his invention. Together with a weaver from a textile plant in France, Mestal perfected his hook and loop fastener. By trial and error, he realized that nylon when sewn under infrared light, formed tough hooks for the burr side of the fastener. This finished the design, patented in 1955. The inventor formed Velcro Industries to manufacture his invention. Mestral was selling over sixty million yards of Velcro per year. Today it is a multi-million dollar industry.

    From here

  52. Re: one of the current programs NASA is more proud of is Near Earth Asteroid Tracking. given that Earth shows evidence of several major asteroid impacts, each of which likely wiped out a majority of life on the planet, keeping track of asteroids might be a good idea for our species.

    please explain how private enterprise fills this role.

    Actually, according to the cover story of this month’s Atlantic monthly, NASA is doing just about nil with regards to near earth asteroids, instead seeking to spend upwards of $200 billion on building a base on the moon.

    Even when it comes to what should seemingly be NASA’s core mission, it has become nothing but an expensive failure.

    Fortunately, it seems like the U.S. Air force is picking up the slack…(thank god for competition among buearacracies)

  53. JsD,

    It is well known in ultrasecret circles that Mestral ripped the idea from Val Crowe.

  54. Count me in the “missing Art Bell” camp.

    I recall one story where a woman claimed to be able to communicate with a former citizen of Atlantis, who, when sitting on a rock one day, before Atlantis’s collapse, discovered how to transcend the physical world…

  55. Now I see my error.

    The Intel chip basically came out at least two years before the release of an IBM model with that chip.

  56. Kohole,
    Don’t feel bad. I was just smart (read lucky) enough to stumble on the Intel history page/site.

  57. Mick:
    The rarity of this state sponsored achievement owes much to the creative genius of Admiral Poindexter. Poindexter was a noted eccentric who had strange ideas like setting up prizes for private firms instead of centralized development, and even stranger, using gambling games to predict terrorism. Makes me wonder how he made it in the military…

    Regardless he was fired for the gambling/terrorism idea cause liberals got their panties in a wicked knot over it, but his vision and methods live on at DARPA.

    Lucky him. Jim Bell had essentially the same idea as Poindexter, spelled out in his essay “Assassination Politics“. His version was to allow people to bet on the time of death of politicians, IRS employees and such – with the winning bet collecting a tidy sum of money. The money would be contributed/paid in an anonymous and untraceable manner. Of course, the person best suited to collect the winnings would be an assassin, and anyone who wanted a particular politician or government official dead could simply contribute to the pot for that person.

    Anyway, Bell landed in jail. It seems the feds didn’t like his ideas much.

  58. AIDS jokes. They just NEVER stop being funny.

  59. They failed to give us telepathic spies.

    As far as you know.. why do you think the Berlin Wall fell?

  60. I’m pretty pumped about: A nasal spray that dramatically reduces the need for sleep.

    Don’t we commonly refer to this as cocaine?

  61. I wonder if they have stacks of those 5″ square floppies.

    8″ FTW!

  62. I hope Thomas Pynchon gives that New Scientist article a reading, there is a novel in there somewhere.

  63. Whatever qualms one might have about a semi-super secret defense agency with a mandate to invent “surprising” military technologies…

    And your qualms are precisely what?

  64. Thank goodness our government is busy doing things that no private companies could possibly ever do!

    In fact, private companies won’t do many these kinds of things anymore. Look at what’s happened to corporate R&D over the past decade. We’ve reached the point where the vast majority of technological and scientific progress would stop without government funding.

    Like it or not, that’s life.

  65. Whatever qualms one might have about a semi-super secret defense agency

    Ah! Silly me, for a moment I forgot what every good Democrat knows by heart (including those who call themselves libertarians):

    “Anything defense-related” = “BAD BAD BAD”

    Root assumption behind this equation is that war will go away if we just wish that it would.

    And socialism is actually okay, as long as gays can marry and we can all smoke dope.

    Yup, give me my orgasms and my high, and don’t bother me with all the rest.

    Oh, and if the government is going to spend money on something stupid, the only acceptable thing would be giving free transportation to the US for any and all of the world’s poor people (or even if they just want it), and letting them come here as long as they want.

    Because we all know that we’d all be better off if we could bring ALL the world’s poor people here right now today. And besides it would help them out so very much, they’re so poor — and we all know that altruism is the highest of “libertarian values” (and anyone who practices rational self interest is just a big meanie — oh I’m sorry now, they’re a RACIST).

    That pretty well sums up what the staff attitude around here has evolved into.

  66. Actually, my ideal defense policy is Switzerland’s. I think it would be ideal for any country, most definitely including the United States.

    The features of the Swiss system for keeping the peace are simple. They mind their own business, and they have very strict gun control. By which they mean that every Swiss male must have a gun, except for those who have to carry a mortar or missile launcher. Females are not subject to universal military training, but if you go to a Swiss rifle range, there are always girls blasting away too. After 9-11, the Swiss told passengers to carry their bayonets onto their airliners . . . somewhat different from the US response of panicked victim-disarmament. (You are aware that 99% of US pilots are STILL disarmed?)

    Combine a strong HOME defense with a foreign policy of strict neutrality – “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none” – and I am utterly and totally convinced that no foreign power or terror group would have any interest in attacking us.

    Islamist radicals aren’t against us because of Barbie, McDonald’s and democracy. The reason they attacked us is because we’ve been mucking around in their part of the world for over half a century.

  67. This is a rather awesome piece of military robotics that DARPA is sponsoring at the moment:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1czBcnX1Ww

  68. That pretty well sums up what the staff attitude around here has evolved into.

    You forgot to add: “For a magazine called ‘Reason’…”
    But seriously, I’ve never read any staff member sneering at ‘rational self-interest’, but it’s as arrogant to sneer at any hint of altruism as it is to be contemptuous of any whiff of self-interest. In fact, I would argue that somebody has not developed a complete personality if they are not simultaneously looking out for their own well-being as well as that of their family, friends, neighbors, etc. Teamwork, co-operation and the use of the ideas of others are as much keystones of human greatness as self-discipline, self-improvement and the advancement of personal interests. Sir Isaac Newton said it best: “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
    Although I believe that socialism is a dead end, so is solipsism.

    /arrogant lecturing.

  69. Actually, my ideal defense policy is Switzerland’s.

    So, you would have preferred the U.S. remain neutral in WW II?

    Not sure that would have worked out well.

  70. Islamist radicals aren’t against us because of Barbie, McDonald’s and democracy. The reason they attacked us is because we’ve been mucking around in their part of the world for over half a century.

    Right, and the Second Siege of Vienna was because of…?

    History argues only liberal democracies have much interest in peace for its own sake.

  71. Velcro was invented in 1941 by the Swiss engineer George de Mestral. NASA’s use of the product in the Apollo program may have helped to popularize Velcro but they didn’t invent it.

  72. Arthur C Clark was first with the idea of geostationary satellites. After that, GPS was inevitable. All that remained was for the level of electronics technology to become equal to the (quite difficult) time measurement problem. DARPA just had the bucks to huck the birds into space.

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