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Advanced Research Projects from DARPA's Pentagon Demo Day
Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Yesterday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held a Demo Day for the Department of Defense in the courtyard at the center of the Pentagon to give the defense community “an up-close look at the Agency's diverse portfolio of innovative technologies and military systems at various stages of development and readiness.” In other words, prototypes of ultra-futuristic, high-risk high-reward hardware and software.

The Pentagon Courtyard was filled with displays centered around ten different theme areas: air, biology, counterterrorism, cyber, ground warfare, maritime, microsystems, seeds of surprise, space, and spectrum. That last one is probably why we were invited, and we came back with this gallery full of pictures of all of the coolest new stuff.

Modular Prosthetic Limb
Tern UAV
Upward Falling Payloads
VTOL X-Plane
Mobile Hotspots
Transparent Armor
Soft Exosuit
Self-Destructing Electronics
Photonic Computer

Microstructured Materials
MicroFactory
Fast Autonomous Drone
IntraChip Cooling
World's Fastest Chip
LIDAR On a Chip
Satlets
Robotic Satellite Servicing

Modular Prosthetic Limb

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

Johnny Matheny demonstrates Johns Hopkins' Modular Prosthetic Limb, which he controls with a pair of myoelectric armbands. The arm features human-like strength and dexterity, high-resolution tactile and position sensing, and an anthropomorphic form factor.

DARPA Program: Revolutionizing Prosthetics

Tern UAV

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

A mockup of Tern (Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node), a long endurance UAV that can take off and land vertically. Designed for both surveillance and strike capability, a full scale demonstrator is scheduled to fly in 2018.

DARPA Program: Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node

Upward Falling Payloads

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

This 'Riser Node' is placed at the bottom of the ocean, from where it can be remotely triggered on demand. The pod then 'falls' upward to the surface of the ocean, where it releases its payload, which could include an unmanned surface vessel or a UAV.

DARPA Program: Upward Falling Payloads

VTOL X-Plane

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

A mockup of Aurora Flight Science's Lightning Strike, which uses rotating pods of hybrid-electric propulsion ducted fans to take off vertically and then fly horizontally. A 20% scale prototype has flown already, and DARPA has put nearly $90 million towards the construction of two full-scale versions which are scheduled to fly by September of 2018.

DARPA Program: Vertical Takeoff and Landing Experimental Plane 

Mobile Hotspots

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

Two steerable antennas can transfer one gigabyte of data per second through a flying mobile hotspot. A pair of these pods are mounted on a Shadow UAV to provide mobile connectivity at the equivalent of 4G speeds to soldiers in remote areas, and teams of drones can cooperate to create flexible, resilient networks.

DARPA Program: Mobile Hotspots

Transparent Armor

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

Transparent armor made up of layered ceramics, glass, and polymer that's only about six centimeters thick is able to withstand multiple hits from 7.62mm rounds. The crystalline structure of the ceramic helps to prevent the armor from shattering after the first shot, making it ideal for use as windows in tactical vehicles.

DARPA Program: Soldier Protection Systems

Soft Exosuit

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

Patrick Murphy from Harvard's Wyss Institude demonstrates a soft exosuit that can increase the effective strength and endurance of the wearer by up to 25%. Motors pull on cables attached to the user's thighs, taking over some of the work that muscles would otherwise be doing while walking. The suit is currently being tested by soldiers at the Army Research Lab.

DARPA Program: Warrior Web

Self-Destructing Electronics

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

On the right is an electronic chip embedded in stressed glass, and on the left is all that remains of a similar chip after receiving a signal to self-destruct. "Vanishing" electronics like these can help keep sophisticated technology under control by giving components specific lifetimes, after which they physically destroy themselves.

DARPA Program: Vanishing Programmable Resources

Photonic Computer

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

This is a photonic computer, which uses photons (lasers) for internal communications instead of electrons. Lasers can transmit more data at higher speeds while using significantly less energy, and this chip consumes 20x less power than a non-photonic version with similar performance. Several spin offs from UC Berkeley are already working on commercializing this technology.

DARPA Program: Photonically Optimized Embedded Microprocessors

Microstructured Materials

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

Next to the bar of solid copper (upper right) is copper that has been woven into a lattice structure. Using a variety of different techniques, copper and other metals can be printed or woven into tightly controlled micro or nanostructures with unique properties, including bespoke density, porosity, flexibility, weight, strength, and more. The difference between using bulk materials and microstructured materials is like the difference between building the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower, and the potential applications are enormous.

DARPA Program: Materials with Controlled Microstructural Architecture (MCMA)

MicroFactory

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

This lightweight carbon fiber truss was created by a swarm of micro-robots from SRI International. It contains embedded electronics as well. The robots are currently working on building skins, which when combined with trusses and electronics, can be used to create structures or potentially even vehicles.  

DARPA Program: Open Manufacturing

Fast Autonomous Drone

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

For true autonomy, drones will have to sense obstacles and avoid them using only on-board sensing and computing. This drone is equipped with a pair of stereo cameras that allow it to avoid obstacles visually at a speed of 1 m/s. By 2018, DARPA hopes to have drones like these autonomously navigating indoors, outdoors, and even through windows at speeds of up to 20 m/s.

DARPA Program: Fast Lightweight Autonomy

IntraChip Cooling

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

Instead of just cooling the top of a computer processor, actively circulating liquid coolant through the processor itself has the potential to dramatically increase performance. Seen here is a chip with microfluidic channels embedded inside the substrate, which could be used for high-performance computing and solid-state lasers.

DARPA Program: Intrachip/Interchip Enhanced Cooling

World's Fastest Chip

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

You're looking at the "World's Fastest Chip," powering a radio link operating at 850 GHz. This is the highest frequency radio link ever demonstrated, according to DARPA. With the RF spectrum getting more and more crowded, ultra high frequency radios like these mean more devices transferring more data more quickly.

DARPA Program: THz Electronics

LIDAR On a Chip

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

The tiny sliver in the upper right of this image is an operational solid-state LIDAR, which uses an infrared laser to determine the direction and distance to objects. This LIDAR can detect objects out to a distance of 1m, but by the end of the year, should reach 10m, with the potential to reach a range of 100m or more. Most robots (including autonomous cars) rely on large, complex, and expensive LIDAR systems, and low-cost solid-state LIDAR could enable all kinds of new and affordable robotic applications.

DARPA Program: Electronic-Photonic Heterogeneous Integration

Satlets

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

When recycling components of dead satellites on-orbit, you still need a basic structure to place those components on that can provide power and control. These modular satlets can be assembled into any number of configurations, offering flexibility, redundancy, and cost savings. The modular bus in this picture is scheduled to carry a telescope into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 this August.

DARPA Program: Phoenix

Robotic Satellite Servicing

imgPhoto: Evan Ackerman / IEEE Spectrum

A mockup of a satellite designed to service other satellites in geosynchronous orbits, which are currently beyond the reach of existing solutions. Satellites could be inspected, repaired, have new payloads installed, or even moved to different orbits, saving on launch costs and reducing orbital debris.

DARPA Program: Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites

The Conversation (0)

The Future of Deep Learning Is Photonic

Computing with light could slash the energy needs of neural networks

10 min read
Image of a computer rendering.

This computer rendering depicts the pattern on a photonic chip that the author and his colleagues have devised for performing neural-network calculations using light.

Alexander Sludds
DarkBlue1

Think of the many tasks to which computers are being applied that in the not-so-distant past required human intuition. Computers routinely identify objects in images, transcribe speech, translate between languages, diagnose medical conditions, play complex games, and drive cars.

The technique that has empowered these stunning developments is called deep learning, a term that refers to mathematical models known as artificial neural networks. Deep learning is a subfield of machine learning, a branch of computer science based on fitting complex models to data.

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