Darpa Invites Techies to Turn Off-the-Shelf Products Into Weapons in New ‘Improv’ Challenge

The agency invites both professionals and hobbyists to submit their most dangerous ideas

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Darpa Invites Techies to Turn Off-the-Shelf Products Into Weapons in New ‘Improv’ Challenge
Photo-illustration: Randi Klett; Images: Getty Images

The good news is that some of today’s most advanced technologies are cheap and easy to find, both online and on the shelves of major chain stores. That’s also the bad news, according to DARPA. The defense agency is nervous that criminals and terrorists will turn off-the-shelf products into tools and devices to harm citizens or disrupt American military operations.

On Friday, DARPA announced a new project called “Improv” that invites technologists to propose designs for military applications or weaponry built exclusively from commercial software, open source code, and readily available materials. The program’s goal is to demonstrate how easy it is to transform everyday technology into a system or device that threatens national security.

It may seem counterproductive for a federal defense agency to publicly encourage technicians to invent weapons that are easy to replicate. However, John Main, Improv’s program manager, says that exposing the nation’s vulnerabilities before they are laid bare in an attack is a prudent form of security.

“I think you have to assume that potential adversaries are very smart, and if something can be figured out, it will be figured out,” he says. “We are trying to get there first.”

For 58 years, DARPA has funded defense research and consulted with industry experts about looming threats. But an explosion of technology and innovation has made it easier for adversaries to get their hands on sophisticated instruments and tools. The same agency that invented the Internet, GPS, and stealth planes has struggled to anticipate all the ways existing technology can be repurposed to hinder its operations.

Main says his mission with Improv is to create a massive “red” team of innovators to identify these new risks, following the military’s tradition of hiring independent groups to evaluate infrastructure for efficiencies and readiness.

“DARPA’s in the surprise business and part of our goal is to prevent surprise. This particular space is one that is difficult to analyze and we’re trying a different approach to gathering information that will help us understand it,” he says. “It really is more about being proactive than reactive.”

It’s no secret that basic materials can become deadly once combined. Investigators who entered the home of Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., last December, found enough supplies to build 20 pipe bombs—including explosive powder, galvanized pipes, and remote controlled cars.

These days, most Americans also have access to smartphones equipped with GPS, cameras, and advanced accelerometers. An amateur pilot can purchase a basic recreational drone for roughly US $600. A 3-D printer is more expensive, but tinkerers can rent them through a makerspace.

DARPA hopes Improv will help it identify new tech-related threats on the horizon. The new challenge is open to technical professionals including engineers, biologists, and information technologists, as well as skilled hobbyists. Applicants can propose an idea through this website. The agency will provide $40,000 in funding to complete a feasibility study for those it deems most alarming.

Once the feasibility studies are complete, the inventors of the most promising ideas will each receive an additional $70,000 to fashion a prototype. The agency says it will pay special attention to proposals that can move from a concept to a prototype in about 90 days. Then, a few prototypes will enter a final evaluation phase with the help of military labs.

The entire program is scheduled to wrap up by the end of 2016. Main says the results may or may not be made public, but promises that DARPA will use them to hone its research aimed at protecting against future threats. 

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