Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

“The World According to DARPA”

April 3rd, 2012 / in policy, Research News, resources / by Erwin Gianchandani

Our colleagues over at IEEE have published a great piece by G. Pascal Zachary, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, opining on the legacy of recently-departed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Director Regina Dugan:

Regina Dugan: The first female director of DARPA pushed the agency to bet on technologies that benefit society as well as the U.S. military [image courtesy Michael Temchine/The New York Times/Redux via IEEE Spectrum].The most famous name in American innovation today isn’t Apple or Google. Nor is it Facebook, Boeing, or Intel.


The iconic American innovator is a government agency that neither earns a profit nor sells a single consumer product. That DARPA … runs with the big dogs of commercial innovation reflects the importance of science and technology to national security. War, not necessity, is the mother of invention.


Since its inception as the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the late 1950s, the agency has gotten a lot of bang for its buck by placing shrewd bets on a variety of high-potential areas. None paid off bigger than the ARPANET, a communications architecture originally conceived to protect U.S. networks against a Soviet strike. Eventually, that network led to the Internet. The agency, later renamed to underscore its military orientation, became legendary.


During the past decade, DARPA lost its mojo. In the mid-2000s, at the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the agency accepted too many combat tasks, which consumed its attention and resources… Distracted by the immediate, DARPA found itself unable to spend hundreds of millions of budgeted dollars. Contracts took longer to ink, there were fewer bold projects, and grants to universities fell by half [more following the link].


Three years ago, DARPA began a welcome return to its roots under the leadership of Regina Dugan, who became the first female director of the agency in July 2009. Dugan immediately sought to award grants more quickly and pursue “moon shots” with high-potential payoffs for the entire nation, not just the “mini‑society,” as she called it, of the military.


Some examples of DARPA’s new goals that have “cascading” benefits include technologies that would enable us to fly anywhere on the planet in a single hour, grow vaccines in plants to protect against pandemics, and build a robot that runs faster than a cheetah.


To be sure, Dugan’s legacy will not be known for some years, but she put her stamp on an agency that few even realized had gone dangerously off course. The secret to her early success, as she stated, amounted to this:


Cool Factor: Part of DARPA’s new push is to leverage “democratized, crowd-sourced innovation,” as Dugan told the U.S. Congress two years ago. To ignite interest, DARPA rolls out a stream of contests open to virtually everyone. These popular contests create buzz for the agency, which in turn attracts talent…


Test: In a departure from DARPA history, Dugan said the Pentagon ought to move from a “buy then make” practice, which leads to cost overruns and faulty systems galore, to a “make then buy” approach, which allows manufacturing scale to occur after a system has proved its mettle.


Target: Dugan seemed more aware than her predecessors of the crucial importance of choosing the right targets — where the benefits are wide and progress is possible. [For example, in] the case of hypersonic flight, she set a speed target of Mach 20 (20 times the speed of sound). Recently, the agency reported that an unmanned “boost-glide maneuvering vehicle,” achieved “fully aerodynamically controlled flight at Mach 20” for a period of 3 minutes before it was lost…

Click here to read the entire article as it originally appeared in this month’s issue of IEEE’s Spectrum.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

“The World According to DARPA”