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How DARPA Has Become An Amazing, Lean Innovation Machine

Say what you will about the flaws in government technology; when it comes to the military, and DARPA in particular, innovation is the name of the game.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Department of Defense agency responsible for developing emerging technologies for military use, is well known for pumping out some of the most sophisticated, advanced, and impactful projects known to man.

The agency might better be called an innovation machine in its unique and mechanical approach to technology development. Where other public science sectors (NASA, for example) have seen stagnation of the financial and technological variety, DARPA is constantly steps ahead, plowing forward with no end in sight.

Here’s how DARPA has become a bastion of innovation, in stark contrast to other government agencies.

A brief history

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DARPA was formed in 1958 under President Eisenhower, at which point it was only ARPA (the D was tacked on in 1972). Its purpose then was to make sure the U.S. would never again be surprised as it was by the Soviets’ Sputnik launch, and the Cold War crisis that ensued once Russia’s technological and military capacity was realized.

DARPA’s mission is, fittingly, to create and prevent strategic surprise by creating breakthrough technologies for national security. The only good surprises are the ones you create, after all.

According to the Harvard Business Review, DARPA’s breakthroughs over the years are unparalleled, and it has arguably “the longest-standing, most consistent track record of radical invention in history.”

Want to take a gander at these inventions? Here’s a handy list of some of the greatest things invented or inspired by DARPA tech:

  • The Internet: In 1969, DARPA’s Internet-predecessor ARPANET was launched using a breakthrough model that led to the modern-day web.
  • GPS & satellite mapping: DARPA’s GPS-predecessor, called TRANSIT (later called NAVAT), went live in 1964 to pinpoint precise locations by satellite.
  • Voice recognition: Original research from which the iPhone’s Siri was based off of was funded by DARPA, starting in 2003, to help soldiers on the field
  • Virtual Reality: DARPA’s Aspen Movie Map, which mapped streets for virtual exploration in 1978, was an important precursor to VR as we know it today
  • Onion networking: DARPA helped develop the encrypted network known as “onion routing” in 1997, three years before the research lead to Tor
  • Drones: DARPA has been researching unmanned aircrafts since the 1960s, and has made key developments in the growing use of defensive and offensive drones

The DARPA model

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[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”4IYo4AImJTYOptn8UmkW8NjIM6gopPXh”]DARPA’s success can be in large part attributed to its uniquely swift, lean, high-risk and goal-oriented business model.

The Agency is unconventional by government standards; it is small and flexible rather than large and unwieldy, consisting of less than 150 technical professionals and existing without hierarchy.

DARPA teams up with researchers and experts of all disciplines for its various programs, which are typically three to five years long. DARPA may have around 200 programs at any given time, sponsored by a relatively modest $3 billion in annual funding.

The Agency is committed to a methodology known as Pasteur’s Quadrant, which seeks both fundamental understanding of scientific problem and solutions that benefit society, bridging the gap between “basic” and “applied” research.

Asides from these aspects, some other characteristics that likely contribute to DARPA’s success are:

  • A focus on breakthroughs rather than incremental improvement
  • Autonomy from bureaucratic impediments and oversight that might stifle innovation
  • An acceptance of failure
  • Project organization around technological challenges in need of solutions
  • Fluid staff, outsourced personnel, and a strong supportive network of experts

Though others have attempted to replicate the DARPA model, there has been limited success in doing so. Two former DARPA leaders argue, however, that the model can be adopted for the private sector when ambitious goals, deadline-driven projects, and independent decision-making are prioritized — qualities that ex-DARPA leaders are reproducing at Google.

DARPA today, tomorrow, and beyond

What’s DARPA up to now? You name it. Humanoid robots, mass-surveillance zones, battery-powered human exoskeletons, darting droves of drones, mind-reading technology, an atomic GPS, metamaterials, an IoT virus shield, smart bullets, instant language translation, eyesight enhancing contacts, and so much more.

Sound crazy? Well, once upon a time the Internet and GPS were sci-fi ideas too; now, we can’t live without them. Whatever comes next, if history is anything to go off of, it very well may come out of the stunningly effective machine that is DARPA.

Now, if only this model (and its funding) could be applied to space exploration, who knows where we’d be?

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert