A Canticle For DARPATech

I’ll never eat Pentagon m&ms again. A DARPA spokesperson has confirmed that there will be no more DARPATech, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s bi-annual (but occasionally annual, and at other times occurring only every three years) conference, at which the latest and greatest “mad science” technologies go prime time. A quick eulogy is in order.

DARPATech 2007 featured a particular bumper crop: Robot arms, unmanned autonomous robot Humvees, all-seeing blimps, an autonomous insect-like robot called "Little Dog," a robo-beast of burden called Big Dog, and a deputy director’s bikini-clad demonstration of a core-temperature regulating glove. There was even a bracing dose of reality.

Yes, DARPATech was probably a PR boondoggle meant to remind news outfits that the Defense Department isn’t just about killing people. But is that so wrong? Of all the Defense agencies, DARPA is probably the best-run. DARPA program managers have four-year contracts, and they never get the chance to become career bureaucrats. After their term is up, they are told to skedaddle no matter the status of their project. The agency is low on bureaucracy and high on ideas. And the ideas are life-changing.

However, the Obama administration is likely avoiding highly visible celebrations of war. That might be an unfair description of DARPATech, but how else would you characterize 3,000 defense contractors hanging out at a convention so elaborate and shiny that it makes a trip across the street to Disneyland (literally) seem boring?

Most likely, the biggest reason is money. When Danger Room blogged the 2007 convention, reporter Sharon Weinberger observed that the best kept secret at DARPAtech was "how much it costs."

According to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee at ScienceInsider, the FY2011 budget for DARPA is $2.9 billion. Though the agency lost $100 million from 2010, they shifted $200 million to basic research (bringing that amount to $2 billion). To get to that number, DARPA said that it had to chop some "low priority weapons development programs." Also: shiny conventions across the street from Disneyland.

The DARPA spokesperson told me that the agency has been pursuing “different arrangements.” In January, for example, they hosted the DARPA Industry Summit in Washington, DC “to discuss key globalization issues,” and he says that DARPA expects to hold similar meetings in the future.

Full disclosure: I am an unabashed DARPA fangirl. For me, this is very sad news indeed.

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