The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is unusual in that it eschews the typical hierarchy found in other government agencies, in an attempt to stay flexible, to cut down on bureaucratic red tape and to foster the kind of innovation that’s the focus of its mission.
DARPA is broken into small project teams, each with a manager. The agency’s top brass and these managers identify specific, clearly defined problems, and then the managers look to sources both inside and outside of the agency for ideas on how to overcome them. The teams are given a lot of leeway, allowing them to pursue solutions that might seem risky or even far-fetched to some - just so long as they don’t capriciously waste taxpayer funds, according to the DARPA Web site. If, during the course of exploring these ideas, an auxiliary problem comes up and needs to be addressed, then it often gets a fresh project team to look into it. Each project builds on others incrementally, with the desired effect being major technological innovation accumulated over time.
The groups typically receive between $10 million and $40 million over four years to complete their work, as well as help from support staff, organizations and universities. However, some projects receive funding of as little as $1 million, while others can get as much as $100 million. According to the DARPA Web site, the best program managers are described as “freewheeling zealots in pursuit of goals.” Technical staff members are rotated every three to six years, to bring in new people with fresh ideas. Support staff - including contractors and secretaries - is employed on a strictly as-needed basis, so that DARPA doesn’t have to worry about providing them with new work when projects end.
There is a minimal management layer between the DARPA director and project managers, made up of six so-called office directors. Projects are grouped into these offices, which are the Defense Sciences Office
, the Information Processing Technology Office
, the Information Exploitation Office
, the Microsystems Technology Office
, the Strategic Technology Office
and the Tactical Technology Office
. According to the DARPA Web site, the Contracts Management Office
“plans, negotiates and awards contracts, grants and agreements for select new-start technology projects … and for other cooperative projects” where contracting some work out might be useful. The CMO also handles the Small Business Innovation Research
program. The Human Resources Directorate
, as its name suggests, handles DARPA’s human-resource functions.
DARPA has helped to develop a number of inventions over the years, including the M-16 rifle, the Saturn rocket, global positioning systems and unmanned aerial vehicles. But it’s also helped fund projects that have gone nowhere, that some found ridiculous or that raised the ire of civil libertarians or other groups (see Controversies below).
The DARPA Grand Challenge
is a competition for driverless cars, in which winning developers are awarded a congressionally authorized cash prize. In the third and most recent challenge, held on Nov. 3, 2007, competitors’ vehicles conducted simulated supply missions in a mock urban area. In recent years, DARPA has concentrated heavily on innovations in the field of robotics.
Some current projects include:
· Armor Challenge
, which seeks “to identify revolutionary and promising new armor systems for military vehicles.”
· Polymer Ice
, a program that aims “to replicate the properties of ‘black ice’ for use in a broad range of hot, arid environments as found in the Middle East.”
· Learning Locomotion
, the goal of which is “to develop a new generation of learning algorithms that enable traversal of large, irregular obstacles by unmanned vehicles.”
, a program that aims to provide the military with the “unprecedented ability to identify targets through dense foliage and other obscurants.”
· Counter Sniper
, a program that seeks “to detect and neutralize enemy snipers before they can engage U.S. forces.”
Air Laser, which is investigating “the potential for a high energy laser (HEL) concept based on direct diode pumping of liquid oxygen.”
The Pentagon: Some Things Never Change Department
(by Nick Turse, TomDispatch.com)