Tag Archives: DARPA and dirty bombs

The Reckless Gambles that Changed the World: darpa

Using messenger RNA to make vaccines was an unproven idea. But if it worked, the technique would revolutionize medicine, not least by providing protection against infectious diseases and biological weapons. So in 2013 America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gambled. It awarded a small, new firm called Moderna $25m to develop the idea. Eight years, and more than 175m doses later, Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine sits alongside weather satellites, GPS, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer and the internet on the list of innovations for which DARPA can claim at least partial credit.

It is the agency that shaped the modern world, and this success has spurred imitators. In America there are ARPAS for homeland security, intelligence and energy, as well as the original defense one…Germany has recently established two such agencies: one civilian (the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, or SPRIN-d) and another military (the Cybersecurity Innovation Agency). Japan’s interpretation is called Moonshot R&D. 

As governments across the rich world begin, after a four-decade lull, to spend more on research and development, the idea of an agency to invent the future (and, in so doing, generate vast industries) is alluring and, the success of DARPA suggests, no mere fantasy. In many countries there is displeasure with the web of bureaucracy that entangles funding systems, and hope that the DARPA model can provide a way of getting around it. But as some have discovered, and others soon will, copying DARPA requires more than just copying the name. It also needs commitment to the principles which made the original agency so successful—principles that are often uncomfortable for politicians.

On paper, the approach is straightforward. Take enormous, reckless gambles on things so beneficial that only a handful need work to make the whole venture a success. As Arun Majumdar, founding director of ARPA-e, America’s energy agency, puts it: “If every project is succeeding, you’re not trying hard enough.” Current (unclassified) DAROA projects include mimicking insects’ nervous systems in order to reduce the computation required for artificial intelligence and working out how to protect soldiers from the enemy’s use of genome-editing technologies.

The result is a mirror image of normal R&D agencies. Whereas most focus on basic research, DARPA builds things. Whereas most use peer review and carefully selected measurements of progress, DARPA strips bureaucracy to the bones (the conversation in 1965 which led the agency to give out $1m for the first cross-country computer network, a forerunner to the internet, took just 15 minutes). All work is contracted out. DARPA has a boss, a small number of office directors and fewer than 100 program managers, hired on fixed short-term contracts, who act in a manner akin to venture capitalists, albeit with the aim of generating specific outcomes rather than private returns.

Excerpt from Inventing the future: A growing number of governments hope to clone America’s DARPA, Economist, June 5, 2021

It’s Easy: How to Make a Radioactive Dirty Bomb

A truck carrying highly radioactive materials has been stolen by armed criminals in central Mexico the Independent reported on April 12, 2012. The Mexican government is now warning that anybody who comes in close contact with its deadly payload could be risking their lives. The individuals got away with an industrial inspection equipment truck during an armed heist on April 11, 2021 in the town of Teoloyucan. Included in the bounty is a QSA Delta 800 gamma ray projector that holds radioactive iridium-192, selenium-75 and ytterbium-169 isotopes — a highly unusual bounty for any hijacker.

It’s still unclear why they targeted the truck in question, but during a previous robbery involving radioactive waste, Mexican authorities feared the ingredients may be used to build a dirty bomb. Contact with the contents of the truck, authorities emphasized, can be fatal. “At 10am today, there was a robbery of radiographic equipment reported,” reads a warning issued by the National Commission for Nuclear Security and Safeguarding, as quoted by the Independent. “If the radioactive material is extracted from the container, is moved, or makes direct contact with any persons handling it, permanent injury can occur in minutes.” “In case of making direct contact with the source over the course of hours or days, the effects can prove fatal,” the warning reads. Even just being 30 meters away could cause radiation poisoning, according to the Commission.

Members of the Commission for National Civil Protection (CNPC) have been dispatched across the central region of Mexico. Authorities have not ruled out the possibility that the truck may now be in Mexico City….This is not the first time radioactive material has been stolen in Mexico.

Excerpt ‘Extremely dangerous’ radioactive material stolen in Mexico truck hijacking, Independent, Apr. 12, 2021

Stop the Dirty Bomb

A DARPA program aimed at preventing attacks involving radiological “dirty bombs” and other nuclear threats has successfully developed and demonstrated a network of smartphone-sized mobile devices that can detect the tiniest traces of radioactive materials. Combined with larger detectors along major roadways, bridges, other fixed infrastructure, and in vehicles, the new networked devices promise significantly enhanced awareness of radiation sources and greater advance warning of possible threats.

The demonstration of efficacy earlier this year was part of DARPA’s SIGMA program, launched in 2014 with the goal of creating a cost-effective, continuous radiation-monitoring network able to cover a large city or region. The demonstration was conducted at one of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s major transportation hubs where DARPA tested more than 100 networked SIGMA sensors…

The pocket-sized radiation “pager” sensors developed by DARPA and used in the exercise can be easily worn on a person’s belt, are one-tenth the cost of conventional sensors, and are up to 10 times faster in detecting gamma and neutron radiation. Moreover, the program achieved its price goal of 10,000 pocket-sized detectors for $400 per unit….A large-scale test deployment of more than 1,000 detectors is being planned for Washington, D.C., later this year.

Excerpt from Ushering in a New Generation of Low-Cost, Networked, Nuclear-Radiation Detectors, OUTREACH@DARPA.MIL, Aug. 23, 2016