Defense research aims to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
As the House moves closer to approving defense spending for fiscal 2006, tucked inside its bill are imaginative, scientific projects like building vehicles that glide like birds and slither like snakes, helicopters that transform into jets, and computers that heal themselves after attacks.
The innovative projects are just a few of the research and development initiatives happening at the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Under the spending measure, DARPA would receive $3.1 billion -- $20 million more than President Bush requested. The agency received $3 billion last year.
In recent testimony before Congress, DARPA Director Anthony Tether outlined more than 75 new devices, machines, technologies and ideas that his office is developing.
Tether pleaded that Congress allow the agency to continue its multidisciplinary research, arguing that it is the "foundation for creating the innovations of the future." He noted that DARPA is currently combining neuroscience, biology, computers, actuators, sensors and power systems to revolutionize prosthetic limbs.
Other projects on Tether's list include building aircraft capable of lifting an entire army brigade from "fort to fight" in order to eliminate the need for bases outside the United States.
To develop new energy resources, the scientists are researching mechanical and chemical ways to process military waste into fuel. They also want to harvest the electrical energy behind the motion of ocean waves, as well as use the oceans' underwater chemistry to generate electrical power.
DARPA concentrates on national security threats as well. One project focuses on developing highly sensitive and portable chemical-identification devices. Another initiative is studying methods to decontaminate buildings after radiological attacks.
The agency also would like to use robots in vehicles that could sense and react to tough terrain and flying robots for urban war-fighting to watch intersections and rooftops and report directly back to soldiers on the ground. Another project aims to create tiny bullets and grenades that are capable of steering themselves in flight to hit the hardest and farthest targets.
For the military's space activities, DARPA is working on jam-proof communications satellites; robots that could repair, upgrade and refuel other satellites; and pulsing neutron stars as location-tracking devices. Another project includes building "cheap, easy to launch" spacecraft that would "swarm together" to exceed current capabilities.
The agency also is researching and developing advanced computer systems, including technology to build a quantum computer and systems that could stop and self-heal amid cyber attack.
Other projects include studying the behavior of cells as they recover from injury to regrow the original skin or muscle without scarring, and understanding how cells use oxygen during hibernation in order to increase the time before hemorrhagic shock occurs after massive blood loss.