DARPA’s new chief pilot changes course

An encouraging blast from agency’s glorious past.

Exoskeleton for “grunts” will let soldiers run at 10 mph or carry 200 lbs without feeling the load.

And once more, DARPA is going after breakthrough projects—not just incremental gains that can be shipped to the field immediately. Dugan has even established a new Transformational Convergence Technology Office, which specializes in potentially game-changing fundamental work involving universities and other research communities.

It’s not that DARPA has gotten out of working on highly practical short-term projects. The helicopter alert and threat termination (HALTT) program is a response to the incoming small arms fire that accounts for about 85% of attacks on helicopters operating in Iran and Afghanistan.

HALTT detects the shock wave of a bullet in flight and massages the data to let crewmembers know where the fire came from. Begun after Dugan took over, the project required just 5 months to go from concept to live fire exercises. It is expected to reach the field in less than a year. Projects do not get much faster or more practical than that.

The DARPA Crosshairs program is developing a similar technology for ground vehicles. It will detect small arms fire, incoming rocket-propelled grenades and the like, then display the shooter’s location on an interactive map and relay the information to overhead weapons platforms. Crosshairs should make it very dangerous to shoot at US troops.

But more fundamental, longer-term efforts are clearly on the ascent. In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, Dugan described some of them.

The autonomous real-time ground ubiquitous surveillance–imaging system (ARGUS-IS) is the next generation of surveillance equipment for drones. The camera is built around a 1.8-billion-pixel video sensor.

That is about 1000 times the resolution of the finest-grained digital camera available for home use. Delivering that much information in an image should make it a lot easier to automate target tracking, so human analysts will be able to do their jobs with a lot less hands-on work.

The program referred to as “integrated sensor is structure” (ISIS) will provide theaterwide surveillance, tracking and fire control using large, lightweight radar units. For pilots, the most interesting part is where those radars will be mounted—in the skins of unmanned airships as large as a 15-story building.

In 2000, it took $1.4 billion to keep watch over the no-fly zone in Iraq. A single ISIS unit holding station over Karbala could have done the job at less than 5% of the cost. But for those of us not in the military, the real question is how long it will take to convert those airships for manned use and get them to the civilian market.

Because you just know this is one more case where DARPA’s military technology will eventually find its way into private hands. Exoskeletons for human performance augmentation (EHPA) is the name of a project aimed at producing external powered skeletons to upgrade the soldier’s own physical ability.

It will enable him/her to carry up to 200 lbs without feeling any of the weight. It also will make it possible to carry 100 lbs some 45 miles at a speed of 2 mph and arrive less fatigued than an unaugmented grunt making the same trip without any load at all. Built from titanium, the exoskeleton will weigh less than 55 lbs and be quieter than an office printer.

Design specs say the wearer will be able to run at up to 10 mph and perform deep squats, crawls and upper-body lifting. Of course, these first exoskeletons will inevitably grow in power and abilities. Some day, and probably soon, they are likely to carry armor, heating and air conditioning—and, of course, rocket launchers, flamethrowers, machine guns and probably laser weapons.

So much science fiction will have arrived at last. Flight systems have long been a priority for DARPA, and its efforts have had lasting impact, both on military aviation and beyond. Its work on unmanned aerial vehicles and systems (UAVs and UASs, respectively), for example, began in 1971 and delivered 2 small remotely piloted aircraft for battlefield use in just 6 years. (See Pro Pilot, May 2008, pp 74–80.)

By 1994, DARPA and General Atomics were working to enlarge the highly successful Gnat-series UAS into a “medium altitude endurance” UAV, now famous as the Predator and probably the single most innovative and useful weapon in the Afghan war.

Recently, DARPA’s work on the Predator drone has begun to revolutionize one aspect of civilian—or at least nonmilitary—aviation. US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) operates at least 7 UAVs, including aircraft based in Arizona, North Dakota, Florida, and—as of this April—Texas, where a single Predator B now patrols the state’s 1254-mile border with Mexico.

A fact sheet distributed by CBP credits Predators with more than 1500 flight hours on border patrol, contributing to the apprehension of more than 4000 illegal border-crossers and the seizure of more than 15,000 lbs of marijuana.

There will probably be more such triumphs. Spurred by the continuing flow of drugs, illegal aliens and, most recently, drug cartel hit squads across the Mexican border, officials propose to triple the number of Predator Bs in the Customs inventory.

By 2015, the entire Mexican border should be under constant surveillance by one of DARPA’s most successful aircraft. Given the agency’s long and illustrious history in flight, it is no surprise that HALTT is not the only aviation-oriented project currently on DARPA’s plate. Here are some of the most interesting and significant.


An old line about military strategy, often erroneously attributed to Confederate General Nathan Bedford For­rest, prescribes getting there “fustest with the mostest.” But sometimes it is enough to move quickly—a huge payload is not required. These are jobs for Falcon, a reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle that should eventually have global reach.

The ultimate goal is a craft capable of delivering 12,000 lbs of payload up to 9000 miles from the continental US in less than 2 hrs. Early models of the vehicle have already passed low and high-speed wind tunnel test. They proved stable and controllable in flight. It will be a rare professional pilot who ever gets to fly one of these things, but we can dream.


Blackswift should take hypersonic flight in 2012.

A joint mission with the US Air Force, Blackswift aims to develop a hypersonic vehicle for many uses—reconnaissance, surveillance, intelligence and ground strikes. By the end of 2012, the prototype should be cable of taking off from a runway under its own turbojet power, accelerating to Mach 6 with a combination of turbojets and scramjets, and returning to land on a runway.

Rapid Eye

Again, this will be an unmanned vehicle, maybe 500 lbs in all—but it will be like no drone any of us has ever seen. How do you get an unmanned airplane anywhere in the world within an hour? DARPA’s answer is to fold its wings—or, in some versions of the idea, deflate them—and pack it into an ICBM. When it gets to its destination, you slow the missile down and kick out the Rapid Eye, which will spread its wings and loiter high in the sky for at least 7 hrs without refueling. Its jobs will be recon, surveillance and intel. DARPA would like to be able to retrieve the plane for reuse, but the agency is leaving it to the companies bidding on the project.


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