Tag Archives: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Made by the Underdog: weapons

Weapon Factor Aleppo Syria

The modern equivalents  of  [improvised weapons] are more high-tech and, like Aleppo’s hell cannons, far deadlier...Any side that begins with a technological advantage will see it erode quickly as the underdogs improve their improvisation capabilities… [H]ell cannons are being mounted on vehicles and fitted with recoil springs to absorb the launch explosion. This improves stability, which in turn enables greater accuracy with follow-up shots. Some designs are no longer fired by lighting a fuse, but at a safe distance with a car battery wired to the propellant charge. Bigger cannons heave oxygen cylinders and, astonishingly, even large household water-heaters packed with enough explosives to destroy a cluster of buildings.

The ominous consequences have led America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the Pentagon, to try to keep up with developments by soliciting worldwide for new ways to make weapons using commercially available materials and technologies. More than 20 experts are now reviewing hundreds of submissions. To better assess the risks, some of the most promising designs will be built as prototypes and tested…[DARPA Improv]

Improvised weaponry typically is not as fearsome as that made by defence companies. But it is a lot cheaper and often effective enough… Despite receiving arms shipments from Iran and Russia, Syria’s regime still uses its own improvised “barrel bombs”—devastating devices made by filling oil drums with explosives and scrap metal….

Even defence firms are turning to more commercially available equipment to make weapons. Lasers used to cut and weld materials in industry, for example, are now so powerful that Boeing bought a 10kW model to put into its High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), a system it has assembled for the American army to shoot down drones and incoming mortar shells by firing a laser beam at them. Just think of HEL MD as “a welding torch” with a reach of kilometres, says David DeYoung, head of the Boeing unit that built it. While the off-the-shelf laser is powerful enough for its role, IPG Photonics of Massachusetts is now selling a 20kW laser.

Smartphones are useful in making weapons. They contain GPS navigation and frequency-hopping technology, which transmits signals that are hard to intercept or jam (both were military developments). Other useful things inside include accelerometers, compasses, gyroscopes, motion detectors and sensors for orientation, measuring magnetic fields and capturing reflected infra-red light (to turn off the screen when it detects the phone is close to the ear, saving battery power and preventing inadvertent touches). All of that can be used for missile guidance and communications, adds Mr Shapir. The guidance and remote-control systems sold with consumer drones offer additional capabilities…

Part of the problem is that anyone can buy not just sophisticated hardware but also a 3D printer to make basic weapon components, says Rear-Admiral Brian Brakke, deputy director of operations at the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency. In Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has been working on dropping improvised bombs from remotely controlled model aircraft. These might carry bigger payloads than the small quadcopters widely sold as drones to hobbyists and commercial operators. The jihadist group has also begun developing remote-control systems for driverless vehicles to deliver huge improvised explosive devices without suicide-volunteers, Mr Brakke believes….

Recent developments in biotechnology have moved the boundaries as well. So-called “biohacking” groups have begun experimenting with homespun processes, much as early computer hackers did with information technology. The biohackers see DNA as a form of software that can be manipulated to design new biological processes and devices. Some of the amateur labs are still relatively crude, but nevertheless there is concern that they could be used to create killer bugs or provide training for bioterrorists. America’s FBI has been watching developments and even organising some biohacker gatherings. That may seem reckless, but the idea is to encourage responsible behaviour and self-policing rather than risk a crackdown that drives the movement underground.

Excerpts from  Improvised Weapons, Hell’s Kitchen, Economist,  May 21, at 2016

Nowhere to Hide: Panopticon Satellites

dapra moire. image from darpa website

From the DARPA website

DARPA’s Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE) program aims to create technologies that would enable future high-resolution orbital telescopes to provide real-time video and images of the Earth from Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO)—roughly 22,000 miles above the planet’s surface. Size and cost constraints have so far prevented placing large-scale imaging satellites in GEO, so MOIRE is developing technologies that would make orbital telescopes much lighter, more transportable and more cost-effective.

Currently in its second and final phase, the program recently successfully demonstrated a ground-based prototype that incorporated several critical technologies, including new lightweight polymer membrane optics to replace glass mirrors. Membrane optics traditionally have been too inefficient to use in telescope optics. MOIRE has achieved a technological first for membrane optics by nearly doubling their efficiency, from 30 percent to 55 percent. The improved efficiency enabled MOIRE to take the first images ever with membrane optics.

While the membrane is less efficient than glass, which is nearly 90 percent efficient, its much lighter weight enables creating larger lenses that more than make up the difference. The membrane is also substantially lighter than glass. Based on the performance of the prototype, a new system incorporating MOIRE optics would come in at roughly one-seventh the weight of a traditional system of the same resolution and mass. As a proof of concept, the MOIRE prototype validates membrane optics as a viable technology for orbital telescopes.

“Membrane optics could enable us to fit much larger, higher-resolution telescopes in smaller and lighter packages,” said Lt. Col. Larry Gunn, DARPA program manager. “In that respect, we’re ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ that traditional materials impose on optics design. We’re hoping our research could also help greatly reduce overall costs and enable more timely deployment using smaller, less expensive launch vehicles.”

Instead of reflecting light with mirrors or refracting it with lenses, MOIRE’s membrane optics diffract light. Roughly the thickness of household plastic wrap, each membrane serves as a Fresnel lens—it is etched with circular concentric grooves like microscopically thin tree rings, with the grooves hundreds of microns across at the center down to only 4 microns at the outside edge. The diffractive pattern focuses light on a sensor that the satellite translates into an image.

MOIRE technology houses the membranes in thin metal “petals” that would launch in a tightly packed configuration roughly 20 feet in diameter. Upon reaching its destination orbit, a satellite would then unfold the petals to create the full-size multi-lens optics. The envisioned diameter of 20 meters (about 68 feet) would be the largest telescope optics ever made and dwarf the glass mirrors contained in the world’s most famous telescopes.

From GEO, it is believed, a satellite using MOIRE optics could see approximately 40 percent of the earth’s surface at once. The satellite would be able to focus on a 10 km-by-10 km area at 1-meter resolution, and provide real-time video at 1 frame per second.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is the prime contractor for the MOIRE program.

The Big Diggers: What DARPA and Stanford Have in Common

Cuthbert_Goes_Digging_Cassette_Cover. Image from wikipedia

Backed by a $5.6 million grant from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a  team at Stanford is embarking on a four-year project to better understand and model complex communication patterns in social networks in real time…The new project is called MEGA: Modern Graph Analysis for Dynamic Networks, and is led by Associate Professor Ashish Goel.   A team of seven principal investigators… will develop algorithms which model human communication and detect subtle patterns in huge data sets from social media.

DARPA is interested because, from a national security standpoint, big data holds the promise of recognizing threats in unusual or suspicious social interactions of terrorists and other foreign adversaries.   Our daily social communication is spread across many forms of interaction. E-mails, tweets, text messages and Facebook posts define our modern social lives. More than ever, information about this correspondence and behavior can be collected, stored, and made available to computer scientists.With access to billions of tweets, e-mails and text messages, a project like MEGA can build reliable mathematical models of social phenomena, like the way news spreads through a network for instance, or even how people choose their social connections, Goel said.

One goal of the MEGA project is to model human online behavior and find how it shapes social networks… The second component of MEGA’s research: writing the step-by-step procedures for processing distributed data in real time….Some of their algorithms and programs will be passed directly to DARPA to be used in a security context…

Excerpt, DARPA Grant Will Help Stanford Dig Deep into the Big Data in Social Networks, Stanford.edu, April 24, 2013

No Need for Eavesdropping: Free Speech and DARPA

Watching your Internet Fingerprint

Plan X for Cyberbattle: DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Information Innovation Office (I2O) will host a Proposers’ Day in support of the anticipated Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for the Plan X program.  The Proposers’ Day Workshop will be held on 27 September at the DARPA Conference Center, 675 N. Randolph Street, Arlington, VA from 0900 to 1600 EDT. There will be an unclassified session in the morning and a classified SECRET session in the afternoon. Attendance at the afternoon session is limited to individuals with US DOD SECRET clearances or higher. Neither session is open to the general public or members of the media. It is anticipated that the Plan X BAA will be released by the end of September 2012.


The objective of the Plan X program is to create revolutionary technologies for understanding, planning, and managing cyberwarfare in real-time, large-scale, and dynamic network environments. Plan X will also conduct novel research into the nature of cyberwarfare and support development of fundamental strategies and tactics needed to dominate the cyber battlespace. The Plan X program is explicitly not funding research and development efforts in vulnerability analysis or cyberweapon generation.

DARPA seeks innovative research in four key areas in support of Plan X:

• Understanding the cyber battlespace: This area focuses on developing automated analysis techniques to assist human operators in planning cyber operations. Specifically, analyzing large-scale logical network topology characteristics of nodes (i.e., edge count, dynamic vs. static links, usage) and edges (i.e. latency, bandwidth, periodicity).

• Automatically constructing verifiable and quantifiable cyber operations: This area focuses on developing high-level mission plans and automatically synthesizing a mission script that is executed through a human-on-the-loop interface, similar to the auto-pilot function in modern aircraft. This process will leverage formal methods to provably quantify the potential battle damage from each synthesized mission plan.

• Developing operating systems and platforms designed to operate in dynamic, contested, and hostile network environments: This area focuses on building hardened “battle units” that can perform cyberwarfare functions such as battle damage monitoring, communication relay, weapon deployment, and adaptive defense.

• Visualizing and interacting with large-scale cyber battlespaces: This area focuses on developing intuitive views and overall user experience. Coordinated views of the cyber battlespace will provide cyberwarfare functions of planning, operation, situational awareness, and war gaming.

A system architecture team is also sought to lead the end-to-end Plan X system development. This will include working with Plan X performers to develop the standard system application programming interfaces, data format specifications, and performer integration schedule. The system architecture team will also be responsible for purchasing Plan X system infrastructure and hardware.  The Plan X program is structured around an on-site DARPA cyberwar laboratory where performers will continuously integrate developing technologies into the end-to-end Plan X system.

Excerpt from: Special Notice Plan X Proposers’ Day Workshop, DARPA-SN-12-51, August 17, 2012

Foundational Cyberwarfare (Plan X)

Proposers’ Day Workshop, 27 September 2012

The Next Pandemic and the United States Military

U.S. military forces are the front line of U.S. national security, but as a globally deployed force they are also on the front line of any new pathogen-based health threat that may emerge [including also due to biological warfare]. As overall human activity pushes ever further into previously undeveloped territory, the likelihood of exposure to new pandemic diseases increases.  The 2009 Army Posture Statement, cites a World Health Organization estimate of between 20 and 50 percent of the world’s population being affected if a pandemic were to emerge. WHO forecasts “it may be six to nine months before a vaccine for a pandemic virus strain becomes available.” In a separate report on pandemic influenza, the WHO describes several challenges to producing sufficient volumes of vaccine using current, egg-based protein-production technology, including the likelihood that two doses per person could be required due to the absence of pre-existing immunity.

In short, the potential for a pandemic exists and current technological limitations on defensive measures put the health and readiness of U.S. military forces at risk. A technological solution to increase the speed and adaptability of vaccine production is urgently needed to match the broad biological threat.

DARPA’s Blue Angel program seeks to demonstrate a flexible and agile capability for the Department of Defense to rapidly react to and neutralize any natural or intentional pandemic disease. Building on a previous DARPA program, Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals, Blue Angel targets new ways of producing large amounts of high-quality, vaccine-grade protein in less than three months in response to emerging and novel biological threats. One of the research avenues explores plant-made proteins for candidate vaccine production.“Vaccinating susceptible populations during the initial stage of a pandemic is critical to containment,” said Dr. Alan Magill, DARPA program manager. “We’re looking at plant-based solutions to vaccine production as a more rapid and efficient alternative to the standard egg-based technologies, and the research is very promising.”

In a recent milestone development under Blue Angel, researchers at Medicago Inc. produced more than 10 million doses (as defined in an animal model) of an H1N1 influenza vaccine candidate based on virus-like particles (VLP) in one month….“The results we’ve achieved here with plant-based production of vaccines represent both significant increase in scale and decrease in time-to-production over previous production capabilities in the same time period. The plant-made community is now better positioned to continue development and target FDA approval of candidate vaccines,” Magill said. “Once the FDA has approved a plant-made vaccine candidate, the shorter production times of plant-made pharmaceuticals should allow DoD to be much better prepared to face whatever pandemic next emerges.”

DARPA Makes 10 Million Strides in the Race to Contain a Hypothetical Pandemic, July 25, 2012 (from the website of DARPA)

How to Control a Robotic Arm by Thought: DARPA, the Brain and the Computer

A groundbreaking United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project has been awarded to the University of Melbourne in brain-computer interfacing.  In the United States alone, nearly two million people suffer from various disorders where control of limbs is severely impaired. In many of these patients, however, the portion of the brain responsible for movement remains intact, and it is disease and trauma to the spinal cord, nerves and muscles that limit mobility, function and independence. For these people, the ability to restore lost control at even a rudimentary level could lead to a greatly improved quality of life.

Dr Thomas Oxley, neurology trainee, Royal Melbourne Hospital has coordinated a multidisciplinary team, combining personnel from the Department of Medicine, and the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering), the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Howard Florey Neurosciences Institute, who have combined extensive research experience in the development of medical bionics, working with intravascular stents, experimentation on large animal models and electrophysiological recordings.

This innovative, minimally invasive approach of inserting electronic systems necessary to reliably acquire and transmit (central nervous system) CNS motor control information is a revolutionary advancement in the area of cortical signal processing….Tthis method would greatly enhance the success of the device by enabling the electrodes to be accurately positioned over the cortical area of interest. The ability for multiple implants to be inserted would allow both quick and reliable control of prosthetic attachments as well as the potential for feedback from prosthetic devices back to the cortex

“DARPA have committed to the development of a neural interface capable of controlling a prosthetic limb by thought,” says Principal Investigator Dr Thomas Oxley.

*DARPA Award No. N66001-12-1-4045

Excerpt, $1,067,200 million DARPA project awarded to the University of Melbourne, Research News University of Melbourne, June 2012

Digital Bombs: DARPA and the Digital Battlefield

The Pentagon is turning to the private sector, universities and even computer-game companies as part of an ambitious effort to develop technologies to improve its cyberwarfare capabilities, launch effective attacks and withstand the likely retaliation.  The previously unreported effort, which its authors have dubbed Plan X, marks a new phase in the nation’s fledgling military operations in cyberspace, which have focused more on protecting the Defense Department’s computer systems than on disrupting or destroying those of enemies.  Plan X is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon division that focuses on experimental efforts and has a key role in harnessing computing power to help the military wage war more effectively.  “If they can do it, it’s a really big deal,” said Herbert S. Lin, a cybersecurity expert with the National Research Council of the National Academies. “If they achieve it, they’re talking about being able to dominate the digital battlefield just like they do the traditional battlefield.”

Cyberwarfare conjures images of smoking servers, downed electrical systems and exploding industrial plants, but military officials say cyberweapons are unlikely to be used on their own. Instead, they would support conventional attacks, by blinding an enemy to an impending airstrike, for example, or disabling a foe’s communications system during battle.  The five-year, $110 million research program will begin seeking proposals this summer. Among the goals will be the creation of an advanced map that details the entirety of cyberspace — a global domain that includestens of billions of computers and other devices — and updates itself continuously. Such a map would help commanders identify targets and disable them using computer code delivered through the Internet or other means.

nother goal is the creation of a robust operating system capable of launching attacks and surviving counterattacks. Officials say this would be the cyberspace equivalent of an armored tank; they compare existing computer operating systems to sport-utility vehicles — well suited to peaceful highways but too vulnerable to work on battlefields.   The architects of Plan X also hope to develop systems that could give commanders the ability to carry out speed-of-light attacks and counterattacks using preplanned scenarios that do not involve human operators manually typing in code — a process considered much too slow.  Officials compare this to flying an airplane on autopilot along predetermined routes.  It makes sense “to take this on right now,” said Richard M. George, a former National Security Agency cyberdefense official. “Other countries are preparing for a cyberwar. If we’re not pushing the envelope in cyber, somebody else will.”

The shift in focus is significant, said officials from the Pentagon agency, known by the acronym DARPA. Cyber-operations are rooted in the shadowy world of intelligence-gathering and electronic-spying organizations such as the NSA.  Unlike espionage, military cyber­attacks would be aimed at achieving a physical effect — disrupting or shutting down a computer, for example — and probably would be carried out by the U.S. Cyber Command, the organization that was launched in 2010 next to the NSA at Fort Meade.  “Because the origins of cyberattack have been in the intelligence community, there’s a tendency to believe that simply doing more of what they’re doing will get us what we need,” said Kaigham J. Gabriel, acting director of DARPA. “That’s not the way we see it. There’s a different speed, scale and range of capabilities that you need. No matter how much red you buy, it’s not orange.”

Plan X is part of a larger DARPA effort begun several years ago to create breakthrough offensive and defensive cyber-­capabilities.  With a cyber budget of $1.54 billion from 2013 to 2017, the agency will focus increasingly on cyber-offense to meet military needs, officials say. DARPA’s research is designed to foster long-shot successes. In addition to helping create the Internet, the agency’s work gave rise to stealth jet technology and portable global-positioning devices.   “Even if 90 percent of their ideas don’t pan out,” said Martin Libicki, a cyberwar expert at Rand Corp., “the 10 percent that are worthwhile more than pay back the difference.”

A digital battlefield map, as DARPA envisions it, would plot nodes on the Internet, drawing from a variety of sources and changing as cyberspace changes.  “In a split microsecond you could have a completely different flow of information and set of nodes,” Gabriel said. “The challenge and the opportunity is to create a capability where you’re always getting a rapid, high-order look of what the Internet looks like — of what the cyberspace looks like at any one point in time.”  The ideal map would show network connections, analyze how much capacity a particular route has for carrying a cyberweapon and suggest alternative routes according to traffic flows, among other things.

The goal would be a visual representation of cyberspace that could help commanders make decisions on what to attack and how, while seeing any attacks coming from an enemy.  Achieving this will require an enormous amount of upfront intelligence work, experts say.  Michael V. Hayden, a former NSA director and a former CIA director, said he can imagine a map with red dots representing enemy computers and blue dots representing American ones.  When the enemy upgrades his operating system, the red dots would blink yellow, meaning the target is out of reach until cyber operators can determine what the new operating system is…

Plan X also envisions the development of technology that enables a commander to plan, launch and control cyberattacks.  A commander wanting to hit a computer that controls a target — a strategically important drawbridge in enemy territory, for example — should be able to predict and quantify battle damage while considering the timing or other constraints on a possible attack, said Dan Roelker, Plan X program manager.

Cyberwar experts worry about unintended consequences of attacks that might damage the flow of electricity to civilian homes or hospitals. A targeting system also should allow operators to stop a strike or reroute it before it damages systems that are not targeted — a fail-safe mechanism that experts say would be very difficult to engineer.  DARPA will not prescribe what should be represented on the digital map.  Some experts say they would expect to see power and transportation systems that support military objectives.

Daniel Kuehl, an information warfare professor at the National Defense University’s iCollege, said the Air Force built its history around attacks on infrastructure — in Korea, Vietnam, Serbia and Iraq.  “In all of those conflicts,” he said, “we went after the other side’s electricity with bombs.”  Today, he said, cyberweapons could be more humane than pulverizing power grids with bombs.

If a cyberwarrior can disrupt a computer system controlling an enemy’s electric power, the system theoretically can also be turned back on, minimizing the impact on civilians.  But retired Gen. James E. Cartwright, who as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until August pushed to develop military cyber-offense capabilities, said the military is focused less on power grids than on “tanks and planes and ships and anything that carries a weapon.”  “The goal is not the single beautiful target that ends the war in one shot. That doesn’t exist,” said Cartwright, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The military needs more of a brute-force approach that allows it to get at a thousand targets as quickly as possible.

Ellen Nakashima, With Plan X, Pentagon seeks to spread U.S. military might to cyberspace, Washington Post, May 30, 2012

How to Unambiguously Identify Zooming Satellites

U.S. military observers can have trouble identifying satellites whizzing overheard in Earth’s crowded space lanes. A new Pentagon effort aims to find the unique visual signatures of individual satellites for quick identification, regardless of whether such satellites belong to friend or foe. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hopes such signatures — remotely seen from ground or space sensors — could even help identify different satellites made by the same manufacturer. But it’s not easy. Satellites’ orbits may often change between overhead passes, and it’s getting more difficult to spot individual satellites in a space becoming more crowded with vehicles, satellites and pieces of leftover space junk.

The DARPA solicitation for an innovative solution from small business, issued April 27, noted, “Some objects are frequently lost, and sometimes serendipitously reacquired without recognition of its previous catalog existence, unless manpower-intensive analysis intervenes.”Any effort to reliably track “active payloads and tumbling objects” and the like would focus on finding each satellite’s physical or “operational” signatures (perhaps signals or movements unique to a certain satellite). Timeliness and speed would be crucial for helping military observers quickly identify satellites that had gone missing and possibly reappeared.

The technology needed here likely would involve some sort of software algorithms that can do automated identification based on satellite signatures. Once such software is created, DARPA envisions passing the testing along to the Joint Space Operations Center, the U.S. military’s center for coordinating space forces and directing space power to support global operations.  DARPA’s focus on satellites also includes the recently launched “SeeMe” effort to deploy dozens of cheap satellites that can provide overhead battlefield surveillance for the U.S. military. The Pentagon afency also has the ongoing “Phoenix” project to try to cannibalize dead satellites and use the parts for new “Frankenstein” satellites.

Military wants to know: Whose satellites are those?, MSNBC.com, May, 3, 2012

See also http://www.dodsbir.net/sitis/display_topic.asp?Bookmark=42609