DARPA 2009: Brains-on-a-Chip, Transparent Displays

By Noah Shachtman

Brains-on-a-chip, robotic rescue choppers, see-through displays — those are just a few of the projects that the Pentagon’s mad science division has hatched up for next year. 

Earlier this week, DARPA, the Defense Department’s way-out research arm, submitted its $3.29 billion budget for the 2009 fiscal year. In it are dozens of new programs — one more far-reaching than the next.

A particularly wild project is Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, or SyNAPSE. “The program will develop a brain inspired electronic ‘chip’ that mimics that function, size, and power consumption of a biological cortex,” DARPA promises us. “If successful, the program will provide the foundations for functional machines to supplement humans in many of the most demanding situations faced by warfighters today” — like getting usable information out of video feeds, and starting tasks.  The agency is looking to spend $3 million next year, to get started on its faux brain effort.  My guess is that it will take considerably more cash to get it done.

The “Nightingale” program aims to put together the building blocks for a “fully autonomous” flyer that could some day serve as both an unmanned ambulance-in-the-sky and as a robotic search-and-rescue chopper. Looking for, picking up and stabilizing the wounded are dangerous, complicated jobs. But, by squeezing “integrated life support capabilities into a small unmanned (or optionally piloted) air vehicle,” DARPA thinks Nightingale could keep some soldiers out of harm’s way. Not only would the drone search for the missing and wounded. This “low cost, high availability air ambulance” could be deployed near the warzone, to get casualties to combat hospitals in a hurry.  

Of course, making this a reality won’t be easy. “Technical challenges include intelligent autonomous flight behavior, sensor integrated guidance and control to enable flight in complex terrain, fully autonomous selection…of suitable landing locations, dual mode (ground and flight) propulsion, collaboration/coordination with human combat medics and safe and rapid autonomous launch and return to advanced medical facilities.”

Just about everything, in other words.

And that isn’t the only new robot project DARPA has in mind for 2009. There’s a $4 million effort to start work on a “robotic naval vessel to operate for years with minimal human interaction.” $4.5 million to build a teeny-tiny, unmanned Osprey that can perch on a rooftop, and silently spy on foes. Another $4 million to arm small drones with an “inexpensive, low weight precision munition that is effective against soft targets,” including individual people. And $2 million for a walking “tetrapod” to carry soldiers’ gear. (That sounds like our favorite robot, the eerily lifelike, four-legged BigDog.)

DARPA is also looking to spend $5 million next year on laser-guided bullets — ammo steered by beams of coherent light, and able to turn on a dime. If the program works as planned, the agency promises, “it will make every shooter with any .50-caliber weapon” into “a precision sniper at greater than 2 kilometer range.”

Another $3 million will go towards spotting rocket-propelled grenades — before they’re launched, somehow. DARPA doesn’t elaborate how the trick would be pulled off, only that it would involve “cognitive swarm recognition technology.” In phase one of the program, DARPA boasts, the system will be capable of “detection rates greater than 95%.”

DARPA is also looking to spend $3 million next year on “transparent displays.” How would you make those? Simple… By “exploiting the optical plasmon phenomenology characteristics of nanoscale structures.” (Contact DANGER ROOM HQ immediately in you can translate.) These new gadgets will replace existing models “in a host of applications, such as canopy- windshield- window-integrated… and new, light-weight avionics displays.” Soldiers today have to use clunky monocles or PDAs — if they use anything at all — to get data on the run. DARPA figures this project might lead to “integrated helmet display visors, bringing the digital battle space to the individual warfighter.”