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7 ambitious DARPA projects that could revolutionize the armed forces

Thanks to its multibillion dollar annual budget and access to some of the sharpest minds around, few research labs could dream of having the resources that DARPA enjoys.

Short for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA is the wing of the U.S. Department of Defense that’s responsible for developing emerging technologies for military use. With everything from brain implants to robo-suits, the agency trying is hardest to make future tech a 2018 reality — and to do it sooner than those who would seek to use that technology against the United States.

Here are seven of the most attention-grabbing DARPA research projects we know about. (And if these are the ones they’ve publicly announced, just think about the ones we don’t yet know of!)

Soft Exoskeletons
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When people talk about the future of warfare they often discuss using technologies such as drones or robots as a replacement for human troops on the ground. The distinction doesn’t have to be quite so binary, though. Cutting edge technologies can also be used to “supercharge” troops by giving humans enhanced abilities, including faster speeds and greater strength.

Working with researchers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, DARPA’s Soft Exosuit is a lightweight skeleton frame for soldiers which can augment its wearer’s strength and endurance; using in-built sensors and a micro-computer to intelligently match the requirements of its user.

Implantable health trackers
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Your body offers you all kinds of feedback about how you are faring when it comes to health. However, a DARPA project created in association with the U.S. Army Research Office promises to take this to the next level — courtesy of tissue-integrated biosensor technology.

The idea is to implant tiny soft hydrogel-based sensors under the skin, and use them to measure biomarkers related to oxygen, glucose, lactate, urea, and ion levels. These sensors could stay in the body for up to two years, and read out information direct to connected devices like smartphones. A consumer-facing version of the same technology could one day help individuals manage chronic diseases such as diabetes.

Self-guiding bullets
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A sniper bullet that changes trajectory after its been fired sounds totally like the stuff of science fiction. However, it describes a real life project being carried out by DARPA which could soon nullify misfiring problems related to weather conditions, wind or plain old shooter errors.

EXACTO ammunition uses an in-built guidance system to keep it on target. Sadly, the whole “secret government project” thing means that specifics about how the guidance system works are classified.

Submarine-hunting drone
DARPA

When you think of a drone, you probably picture the kind of unmanned aerial quadcopter that Amazon could one day use to deliver packages. DARPA has different ideas, though. It has created a 140-ton autonomous drone boat with the goal of tracking enemy submarines. It could also be used for detecting mines in the open ocean.

DARPA’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel can continuously operate for 60-90 days with no human intervention necessary. Following successful sea trials, the “Sea Hunter” prototype is now being further developed under the banner of the Office of Naval Research.

Giant airships
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Talking of giant vehicles, DARPA’s Walrus project set out to create an airship able to haul a payload of 500-1,000 tons (around 1-2 million pounds) up to 12,000 nautical miles in less than a week. Such a vehicle would be immensely useful for quickly deploying large numbers of troops, complete with all their gear and other equipment.

Sadly, the Walrus project seems like it will never get off the ground. But DARPA continues to investigate various Hybrid Ultra Large Aircraft (HULA) initiatives.

Robot insect spies
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Years of exposure to spy movies has likely led our enemies to be suspicious of suave tuxedo-wearing types eavesdropping in the background. You know what could get around that? Cyborg insect spies.

A variety of different insects have been explored as part of the HI-MEMS program, including flying moth implants and beetles. Using implants, researchers have shown that it’s possible to stimulate insect brains and control them in flight. Eventually such insects could be used in the field to gain access to areas not easily reachable by humans or robots.

Brain-computer interface
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Elon Musk may be interested in building high speed brain-computer interfaces, but even he’s not got the resources at his disposal that DARPA has. Working with various organizations as part of its Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, DARPA wants to develop “an implantable system able to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world.”

The idea behind the project is to find ways of converting the chemical and electrical signals of the brain into machine readable data, and vice versa. The end result could mean a neural link that lets the human brain tap into video feeds or, on the other end, allows computers to see exactly what we are seeing at any moment.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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