DARPA goes beyond killer robots with prosthetics and Ebola research

DARPA, the military's mad science division, is also a master of PR -- we all cheer them on, even though they may be building a robot army that one day hunts us down (kidding!) There's a lot more to the Agency than robotics work, however. DARPA was actually founded to "prevent technological surprises" of any kind after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957. As a result, it also supports projects peripherally related to defense, like Ebola research, brain-controlled prosthetics and space exploration. Here at Engadget's Expand NY, we sat down with Director Arati Prabhakar to learn about how its pushing boundaries with its, shall we say, less terrifying work.

Engadget Expand: DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar

Prabhakar started with the history of Jan Scheuermann, a Pittsburgh area woman who's been unable to move any of her muscles from the neck down for a decade. Thanks to two "ports" on top of her head, she's gradually gained finer and finer control of a specially developed robotic limb using her mind. She can now manipulate it to the point where she can drink from a cup, open doors and even shake hands. DARPA sees the tech as eventually helping disabled soldiers, though Prabhakar admitted that practical applications are still a long ways off.

Also little-known is DARPA's work with biotech and infectious diseases. Its researchers are trying to short-circuit the time it takes to develop vaccines and even cures for Ebola and other nasty plagues. For instance, rather than waiting days for a regular vaccine to trigger your natural defense system, why not just create the antibodies in the first place? It's also working on instant disease diagnoses via paper strips, for instance -- a military application to counter germ warfare, but something obviously handy for civilian outbreaks as well.

Nowhere is DARPA more interested in cutting down wait times and costs than in space. That frontier has become critical in nearly every aspect of the US military as well as civilian telecommunications and navigation systems. Rather than having to wait up to three years and spend tens of millions of dollars for a single launch, DARPA is trying to cut down the window to as little as 24 hours. Since technology has significantly reduced the size of satellites, one team is aiming to get micro-satellites to high altitudes on conventional aircraft, then launch them the rest of the way into space using a small rocket. For midsized payloads of 3,000 pounds or so, another project is shooting for a 24-hour launch window and cost of $3-5 million -- a huge discount in time and money over a normal launch.

Finally, Prabhakar discussed DARPA's work with big data. It assisted law enforcement in taking down a human trafficking ring by crunching vast amounts of information, eventually tracing the network to North Korea. All of those projects show that the DoD's wing of crazy researchers isn't just about jetpacks, brick-hurling robots and laser-guided bullets. Instead, it's focused on a huge quest to uncover new tech -- the best way to "prevent surprises," she said, is to unleash them yourself.

[Image: DARPA (prosthetics)]