Tag Archives: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Building Factories in Space: DARPA

DARPA announced on February 5, 2021  its Novel Orbital and Moon Manufacturing, Materials and Mass-efficient Design (NOM4D) program. The effort, pronounced “NOMAD,” seeks to pioneer technologies for adaptive, off-earth manufacturing to produce large space and lunar structures,  “NOM4D’s vision is to develop foundational materials, processes, and designs needed to realize in-space manufacturing of large, precise, and resilient Defense Department systems,” said Bill Carter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “We will also explore the unique features of in-situ resources obtained from the moon’s surface as they apply to future defense missions.” 

Concerning mass-efficient designs, the vision is for completely new concepts that could only be manufactured in space….In order to take the next step, we’ve got to go about materials, manufacturing, and design in a completely new way.

Excerpts from Orbital Construction: DARPA Pursues Plan for Robust Manufacturing in Space, DARPA Website, Feb. 5, 2021

How to Swarm your Enemy

Swarming is…a deliberately structured, coordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions, by means of a sustainable pulsing of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from stand-off positions. It will work best—perhaps it will only work—if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad, small, dispersed, networked maneuver units (what we call “pods” organized in “clusters”). Developing a swarming force implies, among other things, radical changes in current military organizational structures. From command and control of line units to logistics, profound shifts will have to occur to nurture this new “way of war.” …

Swarming could become the catalyst for the creation of a newly energized military doctrine:“BattleSwarm.” One requirement—well-informed, deadly small units—is already coming into being…

Technological hurdles also loom large on the path to BattleSwarm. First, aside from the
challenge of assuring the internetting of communications among myriad units, it is
imperative that communications also be hardened and made redundant. An enemy who
knows that information operations lie at the enabling core of swarming will surely strike
at them—and we must prepare to parry such blows in advance. It may also be possible
to safeguard a swarm force’s information flows by means of decoys and deception.
Indeed, the use of false or enhanced signals and traffic may prove to have offensive, in
addition to defensive, utility.

Swarming and the Future of Conflict (Rand pfd)

DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program envisions future small-unit infantry forces using swarms comprising upwards of 250 small unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) and/or small unmanned ground systems (UGSs) to accomplish diverse missions in complex urban environments. By leveraging and combining emerging technologies in swarm autonomy and human-swarm teaming, the program seeks to enable rapid development and deployment of breakthrough capabilities.

Weapons for the Underdogs

The modern equivalents  of  [improvised weapons] are more high-tech and, like Aleppo’s hell cannons, far deadlier...Any side that begins with a technological advantage will see it erode quickly as the underdogs improve their improvisation capabilities… [H]ell cannons are being mounted on vehicles and fitted with recoil springs to absorb the launch explosion. This improves stability, which in turn enables greater accuracy with follow-up shots. Some designs are no longer fired by lighting a fuse, but at a safe distance with a car battery wired to the propellant charge. Bigger cannons heave oxygen cylinders and, astonishingly, even large household water-heaters packed with enough explosives to destroy a cluster of buildings.

The ominous consequences have led America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the Pentagon, to try to keep up with developments by soliciting worldwide for new ways to make weapons using commercially available materials and technologies. More than 20 experts are now reviewing hundreds of submissions. To better assess the risks, some of the most promising designs will be built as prototypes and tested…[DARPA Improv]

Improvised weaponry typically is not as fearsome as that made by defence companies. But it is a lot cheaper and often effective enough… Despite receiving arms shipments from Iran and Russia, Syria’s regime still uses its own improvised “barrel bombs”—devastating devices made by filling oil drums with explosives and scrap metal….

Even defence firms are turning to more commercially available equipment to make weapons. Lasers used to cut and weld materials in industry, for example, are now so powerful that Boeing bought a 10kW model to put into its High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), a system it has assembled for the American army to shoot down drones and incoming mortar shells by firing a laser beam at them. Just think of HEL MD as “a welding torch” with a reach of kilometres, says David DeYoung, head of the Boeing unit that built it. While the off-the-shelf laser is powerful enough for its role, IPG Photonics of Massachusetts is now selling a 20kW laser.

Smartphones are useful in making weapons. They contain GPS navigation and frequency-hopping technology, which transmits signals that are hard to intercept or jam (both were military developments). Other useful things inside include accelerometers, compasses, gyroscopes, motion detectors and sensors for orientation, measuring magnetic fields and capturing reflected infra-red light (to turn off the screen when it detects the phone is close to the ear, saving battery power and preventing inadvertent touches). All of that can be used for missile guidance and communications, adds Mr Shapir. The guidance and remote-control systems sold with consumer drones offer additional capabilities…

Part of the problem is that anyone can buy not just sophisticated hardware but also a 3D printer to make basic weapon components, says Rear-Admiral Brian Brakke, deputy director of operations at the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency. In Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has been working on dropping improvised bombs from remotely controlled model aircraft. These might carry bigger payloads than the small quadcopters widely sold as drones to hobbyists and commercial operators. The jihadist group has also begun developing remote-control systems for driverless vehicles to deliver huge improvised explosive devices without suicide-volunteers, Mr Brakke believes….

Recent developments in biotechnology have moved the boundaries as well. So-called “biohacking” groups have begun experimenting with homespun processes, much as early computer hackers did with information technology. The biohackers see DNA as a form of software that can be manipulated to design new biological processes and devices. Some of the amateur labs are still relatively crude, but nevertheless there is concern that they could be used to create killer bugs or provide training for bioterrorists. America’s FBI has been watching developments and even organising some biohacker gatherings. That may seem reckless, but the idea is to encourage responsible behaviour and self-policing rather than risk a crackdown that drives the movement underground.

Excerpts from  Improvised Weapons, Hell’s Kitchen, Economist,  May 21, at 2016

Nowhere to Hide: Panopticon Satellites

From the DARPA website: DARPA’s Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE) program aims to create technologies that would enable future high-resolution orbital telescopes to provide real-time video and images of the Earth from Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO)—roughly 22,000 miles above the planet’s surface. Size and cost constraints have so far prevented placing large-scale imaging satellites in GEO, so MOIRE is developing technologies that would make orbital telescopes much lighter, more transportable and more cost-effective.

Currently in its second and final phase, the program recently successfully demonstrated a ground-based prototype that incorporated several critical technologies, including new lightweight polymer membrane optics to replace glass mirrors. Membrane optics traditionally have been too inefficient to use in telescope optics. MOIRE has achieved a technological first for membrane optics by nearly doubling their efficiency, from 30 percent to 55 percent. The improved efficiency enabled MOIRE to take the first images ever with membrane optics.

While the membrane is less efficient than glass, which is nearly 90 percent efficient, its much lighter weight enables creating larger lenses that more than make up the difference. The membrane is also substantially lighter than glass. Based on the performance of the prototype, a new system incorporating MOIRE optics would come in at roughly one-seventh the weight of a traditional system of the same resolution and mass. As a proof of concept, the MOIRE prototype validates membrane optics as a viable technology for orbital telescopes.

“Membrane optics could enable us to fit much larger, higher-resolution telescopes in smaller and lighter packages,” said Lt. Col. Larry Gunn, DARPA program manager. “In that respect, we’re ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ that traditional materials impose on optics design. We’re hoping our research could also help greatly reduce overall costs and enable more timely deployment using smaller, less expensive launch vehicles.”

Instead of reflecting light with mirrors or refracting it with lenses, MOIRE’s membrane optics diffract light. Roughly the thickness of household plastic wrap, each membrane serves as a Fresnel lens—it is etched with circular concentric grooves like microscopically thin tree rings, with the grooves hundreds of microns across at the center down to only 4 microns at the outside edge. The diffractive pattern focuses light on a sensor that the satellite translates into an image.

MOIRE technology houses the membranes in thin metal “petals” that would launch in a tightly packed configuration roughly 20 feet in diameter. Upon reaching its destination orbit, a satellite would then unfold the petals to create the full-size multi-lens optics. The envisioned diameter of 20 meters (about 68 feet) would be the largest telescope optics ever made and dwarf the glass mirrors contained in the world’s most famous telescopes.

From GEO, it is believed, a satellite using MOIRE optics could see approximately 40 percent of the earth’s surface at once. The satellite would be able to focus on a 10 km-by-10 km area at 1-meter resolution, and provide real-time video at 1 frame per second.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is the prime contractor for the MOIRE program.

Exploiting Digital Fingerprints: Military

Backed by a $5.6 million grant from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a  team at Stanford is embarking on a four-year project to better understand and model complex communication patterns in social networks in real time…The new project is called MEGA: Modern Graph Analysis for Dynamic Networks, and is led by Associate Professor Ashish Goel.   A team of seven principal investigators… will develop algorithms which model human communication and detect subtle patterns in huge data sets from social media.

DARPA is interested because, from a national security standpoint, big data holds the promise of recognizing threats in unusual or suspicious social interactions of terrorists and other foreign adversaries.   Our daily social communication is spread across many forms of interaction. E-mails, tweets, text messages and Facebook posts define our modern social lives. More than ever, information about this correspondence and behavior can be collected, stored, and made available to computer scientists.With access to billions of tweets, e-mails and text messages, a project like MEGA can build reliable mathematical models of social phenomena, like the way news spreads through a network for instance, or even how people choose their social connections, Goel said.

One goal of the MEGA project is to model human online behavior and find how it shapes social networks… The second component of MEGA’s research: writing the step-by-step procedures for processing distributed data in real time….Some of their algorithms and programs will be passed directly to DARPA to be used in a security context…

Excerpt, DARPA Grant Will Help Stanford Dig Deep into the Big Data in Social Networks, Stanford.edu, April 24, 2013


The Next Pandemic and the US Military

U.S. military forces are the front line of U.S. national security, but as a globally deployed force they are also on the front line of any new pathogen-based health threat that may emerge [including also due to biological warfare]. As overall human activity pushes ever further into previously undeveloped territory, the likelihood of exposure to new pandemic diseases increases.  The 2009 Army Posture Statement, cites a World Health Organization estimate of between 20 and 50 percent of the world’s population being affected if a pandemic were to emerge. WHO forecasts “it may be six to nine months before a vaccine for a pandemic virus strain becomes available.” In a separate report on pandemic influenza, the WHO describes several challenges to producing sufficient volumes of vaccine using current, egg-based protein-production technology, including the likelihood that two doses per person could be required due to the absence of pre-existing immunity.

In short, the potential for a pandemic exists and current technological limitations on defensive measures put the health and readiness of U.S. military forces at risk. A technological solution to increase the speed and adaptability of vaccine production is urgently needed to match the broad biological threat.

DARPA’s Blue Angel program seeks to demonstrate a flexible and agile capability for the Department of Defense to rapidly react to and neutralize any natural or intentional pandemic disease. Building on a previous DARPA program, Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals, Blue Angel targets new ways of producing large amounts of high-quality, vaccine-grade protein in less than three months in response to emerging and novel biological threats. One of the research avenues explores plant-made proteins for candidate vaccine production.“Vaccinating susceptible populations during the initial stage of a pandemic is critical to containment,” said Dr. Alan Magill, DARPA program manager. “We’re looking at plant-based solutions to vaccine production as a more rapid and efficient alternative to the standard egg-based technologies, and the research is very promising.”

In a recent milestone development under Blue Angel, researchers at Medicago Inc. produced more than 10 million doses (as defined in an animal model) of an H1N1 influenza vaccine candidate based on virus-like particles (VLP) in one month….“The results we’ve achieved here with plant-based production of vaccines represent both significant increase in scale and decrease in time-to-production over previous production capabilities in the same time period. The plant-made community is now better positioned to continue development and target FDA approval of candidate vaccines,” Magill said. “Once the FDA has approved a plant-made vaccine candidate, the shorter production times of plant-made pharmaceuticals should allow DoD to be much better prepared to face whatever pandemic next emerges.”

DARPA Makes 10 Million Strides in the Race to Contain a Hypothetical Pandemic, July 25, 2012