8 Ways DARPA Is About to Change the Future

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Photo: DARPA

DARPA's vision of the future has better chance than most of becoming real — this is, after all, the agency that was key to creating the internet. And every other year, DARPA gives a hint of what it thinks the future might look like when it releases a "Breakthrough Technologies for National Security" report, summarizing all the futuristic projects it’s cooking up and projecting the role they’ll play in the future. 

The latest "Breakthrough" report came out last week, and it assigns great significance to this moment in history. Rapid technological advancement provides the American military unprecedented opportunity to speed past the rest of the world, the report says. But that technology is smaller, cheaper, and, consequently, more accessible than ever. “Hardware alone is no longer a guarantee of military and economic success,” the report says, “increasingly, the nation or non-state player that makes the smartest and most strategic use of that hardware will dominate.”

So DARPA is no longer striving to just build the biggest and baddest military machines. It’s also after agile, smart systems. The following 11 examples of coming developments represent both. Here’s how DARPA will change the world around us.  

GPS will become a thing of the past: Given the importance of precise location data to today’s military, the satellites that make GPS possible have become “vulnerabilities.” As such, it’s time to move on, and so DARPA is “developing a family of highly precise and accurate navigation and timing technologies that can function in GPS-denied environments.”

Planes are getting a makeover: DARPA doesn’t like that accessible technology is posing a threat to America’s “unchallenged standing as the world’s preeminent air power.” In response, X-plane prototypes are being developed with both the Navy and Air Force. Among them is an attempt to build a plane that harnesses the vertical take-off capabilities of the helicopter.

They'll also deliver satellites to space: DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program aims to develop a streamlined system that relies on “unmodified conventional aircraft” to shoot satellites in space with just 24 hours notice.

We’ll no longer be able to hide our nukes: In an effort to quickly and efficiently detect small nuclear and radiological weapons, DARPA is developing a system that can scan entire cities to see if anyone’s hiding a nuke in their closet.

Our data will be mined, even more than it already is: Figuring out how to make use of endless streams of data is one of DARPA’s central goals, and it’s got several programs in development to do this. One particularly interesting effort aims to “detect, classify, measure and track the spread of ideas and concepts on social media.”

Viruses will have a harder time spreading: Genetic technology for tracking and treating major viral outbreaks could dramatically slow the spread of disease and work far better the methods currently deployed. That’s why, in light of last year’s Ebola outbreak, DARPA is hard at work developing “novel antimicrobial agents.”

Damaged brains will get their own pacemakers: DARPA’s ElectRx program is developing ways to inject the human brain with tiny chips that would “bridge gaps in the injured brain, help overcome memory deficits and precisely deliver therapeutic stimuli” to patients with brain injuries.

X-ray vision will seem so last century: Unsatisfied with the limitations of portable X-Ray scanners, DARPA is developing neutron scanning machines that can be used in the field to “see through many otherwise visually impenetrable objects.”