Darpa, the Government Agency With the Best Imagination, Sends Competitors on a Search for Red Balloons

Who doesn’t love Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency? After all, we have Darpa to thank for the Internet.

In recent years, Darpa stands out as the agency that knows how to capture the imagination of scientists, engineers, and the general public. Take the Grand Challenges that sent autonomous vehicles across the desert. These were hugely difficult tasks that sent engineers all over the country scrambling night and day; the effort was big, as was the prize (US$ 2 million).

But even when the prize is small (just $40,000), it seems that Darpa knows how to go for the emotional punch, the vivid symbol that captures the imagination.

Because tomorrow, Saturday, 5 December, Darpa staff members will be tying up 10 red balloons at unannounced locations around the U.S. Each balloon will be visible from a public roadway. The challenge—be the first to identify the latitude and longitude of each balloon. You can work alone; you can work in teams. You can use any technical tool you can think of; you can simply cruise around looking for them. The balloons will only be visible on Saturday, but you’ll have up to nine days afterwards to submit your entry.

The contest is officially called the Network Challenge; the organizers assume that you won’t be able to win without the massive use of computer communications tools and social networks. And that’s what Darpa is trying to figure out—just how these things are used for collaboration today. It is also holding the event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the day the first four nodes of the Arpanet—the predecessor to the Internet—were connected.

It’s a very cool task; sort of Rick Smolan, originator of the Day in the Life series of photography projects, meets Christo, the artist behind huge and colorful public installations.

But I think the real evidence of imaginative genius is the choice of the red balloon as the object to identify. There’s something magical about a balloon, a lonely balloon, tied in the middle of nowhere—French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse best captured that magic in the classic French movie, Le Ballon Rouge, but any child who spends a day with a balloon tied to his wrist or stroller understands that magic. Kudos to the folks at Darpa for understanding it too. And good luck to the competitors.

By the way, registration is open until the contest begins.

Photo: Darpa

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