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‘We Take the Technical Excuse Off the Table’

Director Tether Explains DARPA to Innovators

Chancellor David MacKenzie, left, welcomed to campus DARPA Director Dr. Tony Tether, U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan and University of Massachusetts President Jack Wilson.

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Collect some people who have ideas they can’t accomplish anywhere else. Put them together with others, with similar interests and across disciplines. Then turn them loose to accomplish the impossible.

That’s the basic operational structure of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. With a small staff and 150 program managers who are appointed for six years only, the agency is known for its high risk, high return research for the Department of Defense.

“We’re looking for very strange people, who are willing to give up everything for six years to pursue an idea,” said Dr. Tony Tether, DARPA director, on a recent visit to the Lowell campus. He was accompanied by several program directors and U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, members of Meehan’s staff, staff of the House Armed Services Committee and an Air Force liaison.

DARPA is well known among researchers, though not to the general public, for its role in bridging the gap from “near side,” well-established technology to the “far side” of seemingly impossible inventions. The agency spends $3 billion annually, of which only 2 percent goes to administration, 80 percent to industry and the remainder to universities and national labs.

Future projects at DARPA include networked sensors, alternative energy sources and air vehicles. The annual Grand Challenge ߞ; to construct an autonomous robotic car that can complete a desert track ߞ; has been converted to the Urban Challenge: to complete an urban course, including traffic. A Phraselator is being developed to translate spoken English into spoken versions of other languages. A project is under way in which breweries would produce large quantities of vaccines quickly and inexpensively in an emergency, since both processes involve fermentation. Another project explores a version of mind over matter ߞ; brain signals from a monkey can move a mechanical device in a remote location; this has exciting implications for advanced prosthetics.

A few UML researchers met with the DARPA visitors to brief them on their most far out research, from hyperspectral imaging and negative index of refraction metamaterials to nanofibers incorporated into smart uniforms and robotic vehicles guided with Nintendo-like controllers. UML’s special expertise in nanomanufacturing was highlighted and would be critical to several of the proposals.

Gaining the interest of a DARPA program director can yield great rewards. At Tether’s previous visit in 2002, Profs. Susan Braunhut and Kenneth Marx made a presentation on their wound-healing technology. Since then, they’ve become part of a six-institution research consortium with a multimillion-dollar grant to study limb regeneration in mammals. At the recent briefing, they presented their MicroCanary, a device that would detect non-specific, unanticipated threats such as radiation and toxins.

DARPA research teams work hard for their money, meeting milestones and demonstrating success before funds are released. Although projects have military applications, the military doesn’t always use them.

For example, Tether described an invention that responds to snipers by telling you that you’re being shot at and from where: “This was part of our response to the growing transnational threat, the threat without a country.” At the time, in the 1990s, the military declined the technology, until non-traditional warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq renewed their interest. “We take the technical excuse off the table. They may not want it, but they can’t say it can’t be done.”

Tether spoke at a luncheon sponsored by UML and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, with assistance from the New England Chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association. In his introductory remarks, Meehan said, “It is crucially important that we continue to strengthen the relationship between DARPA and UMass Lowell and the many companies in the region.” He said the campus has received more than $200 million in federal grants and contracts in the last 10 years, much of it from the Department of Defense.

Posters of current research projects ringed the room in Cumnock Hall, where defense industry visitors had a chance to query graduate students and faculty about their work. The attendance exceeded expectations and ARAMARK’s campus catering reported serving 250 people ߞ; in 20 minutes.

Asst. Prof. Alkim Akyurtlu of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, briefed the visitors on her research into metamaterials.
State Sen. Steven Panagiotakos and Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, were among those attending the luncheon.