The World of 2020 According to DARPA

An artist's rendering of the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access system.

DARPA

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An artist's rendering of the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access system.

The research agency is making underwater robots that can sleep for years and other robots that can fix satellites in space.

To reduce the price of weapons and other gear by creating new solutions to old problemsor “rethink complex military systems,” as deputy director Steven Walker of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency puts it–is among DARPA’s focus areas for the next few years. This week, the agency highlighted potential solutions to this and other problems, describing a menagerie of magical technologies that are entering a new phase of research or development.

Some are listed in the agency’s biannual Breakthrough Technologies for National Security report, released this morning to coincide with DARPA director Arati Prabhakar’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. Others have been highlighted by DARPA officials who recently spoke around Washington. They include:

Zombie Pods Of the Deep

The Upward Falling Payloads program seeks to put robot pods on the ocean floor and then allowing them to lie in wait for years until, triggered by either an event or a command, they wake from their deathly sleep and rise to the surface to release their payloads. “Those payloads could hold things like UAVs [drones] that can go up and do ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], to electronic warfare components to UUVs [underwater drones] that can do similar things under the water,” Walker said.

He added that the aim was to create a “worldwide” architecture for such pods, allowing them to be used everywhere —and potentially even replacing submarines.

“Today, the U.S. Navy puts capability on the ocean floor using very capable but expensive submarine platforms. What we would like to do in this program is pre-position capability on the ocean floor and have it be available to be triggered in real-time when needed,” said Walker. He highlighted a wide array of technical challenges in making zombie-pod drones, such as getting them to float to the surface in the right way (a phenomenon that they call upward falling), power supplies and protecting the payloads on the ocean floor for years at a time.

“You put this thing down beneath 4 kilometers you see extremely high pressures that have to be withstood for potentially years. There’s other issues like befouling you have to think about dealing with and then the [communication] system that wakes these things up and tells them what to do,” DARPA program manager Dick Urban said at a National Defense Association event in Washington.

The program consists of three parts,  said Urban. “One is to make a canister that is able to hold different types of payloads.”

The program will enter its second phase this year. “We haven’t actually built anything, but we’ve done the design studies,” Urban said. “We’ll be taking those different technologies, taking them into the water and testing and seeing how well they work.” He said, “If we’re successful in this program, we’ll be showing what’s possible here, but we’ll also be showing what’s possible in terms of a distributed architecture across the entire ocean.”

The Distributed Agile Submarine Hunting or DASH program seeks to develop what Walker called “sub-ulites.” Think of these as satellites for the ocean. “Because they’re deep, they have a detection envelope that’s pretty broad,” he said.

Meanwhile, Urban highlighted the Transformational Reliable Acoustic Path System or TRAPS program, a passive sonar that sits at the bottom of the sea at six kilometers, listening for acoustic signatures that could indicate passing submarines. When it detects one, it sends word to a surface node. 

Satellites Launched From Planes and Satellite-Fixing Robots

In DARPA’s future, you don’t rely on today’s Global Positioning System to get around. The agency has been working for years to build alternative ways to tell people where they are without connecting them to a network of expensive satellites. But DARPA’s world is still one in which we go to space—in fact, a lot.

“A major focus on our space investments is a realization that we are extremely reliant on space,” She highlighted military intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities as well as space-based communication and its role on the battlefield. “We can’t fight the way that we’re trained to fight today without this space assets,” Prabhakar said.

She said some of the key questions that DARPA will be asking this year include: “How do we change what’s possible to do on orbit? How do we change space domain awareness so that we can understand in real-time so that we can see what’s happening and then control what we need to do on orbit?”

What does that mean specifically? In his own talk, Urban highlighted the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program, or ALASA, program as key to that vision. ALASA seeks to send 100-pound satellites into orbit within 24 hours for less than a $1 million apiece. It aims to accomplishes this by shooting them into space from super-high flying jets.

“Where we are today is it takes years to schedule launch, billions to put anything of substance on orbit,” said Prabhakar, who also highlighted the costs of maintaining objects in space as a key challenge to maintaining U.S. space dominance.

“The satellites that we put up there, they’re supposed to last a long time and sometimes things happen to them. They fail; an asteroid goes through the solar sail. But if you can fix them you can potentially save a lot of money,” said Urban.

That’s the aim of the Robotic Servicing of Geostationary Satellites, or RSGS, program. Picture a team of armed robots clinging to a piece of military spy equipment far above the earth, fixing and repairing the damage caused by space junk, debris, the harsh elements of space and simple mechanical age. “We have to have robotic arms that are very accurate. We have to have camera systems that can do inspection and find out what’s wrong,” said Urban. You can read more about it here.

With its $2.9 billion budget, DARPA is hardly the biggest player in DOD or technology development.  It faces technological competition not just from adversaries but non-state actors and the commercial sector. The days of being 30 years ahead of the rest of the world are long gone, something that DARPA representatives acknowledge frequently. “There are technologies arriving globally that are as good as anything we’re developing in this country,” said Urban. “The cost of our acquisition system is really holding us back.” The hope is to continue to secure some technological advantage, do so repeatedly, and at a cost that doesn’t drive the country bankrupt. 

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