New DARPA Office Merges Biology And Technology - InformationWeek

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New DARPA Office Merges Biology And Technology

The Biological Technologies Office will focus on using neuroscience, sensor design, microsystems, and other technologies for defense purposes.

DARPA Next-Gen Aircraft: Sneak Peek
DARPA Next-Gen Aircraft: Sneak Peek
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

The Defense Advance Research Program Agency (DARPA) has created a division that merges biology, engineering, and computer science to advance technologies for national security.

The goal of the Biological Technologies Office (BTO) is to develop next-generation systems that are inspired by the life sciences. Biology is among the core sciences that represent the future of defense technology, DARPA said. The BTO will expand on the work already carried out by DARPA's Defense Sciences (DSO) and Microsystems Technology (MTO) Offices, particularly in disciplines such as neuroscience, sensor design, and microsystems.

DARPA director Arati Prabhakar has named Geoff Ling as the first BTO director.

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The new office will initially focus on programs transferred from DSO and MTO, but it will also handle several fresh projects. One of them is Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX), which seeks to create interfaces for limbs that provide amputees with innate feeling and function. The HAPTIX program covers the development and testing of the neural interface, electronics, and packaging technologies for controlling and sensing the prosthesis.

Developing prosthetic technology and nerve interfaces for amputees has long been a focus for DARPA. The agency launched its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program in 2006 and has since added programs like Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) to the portfolio. RE-NET is leading research to develop high-performance, reliable peripheral interfaces that use signals from nerves or muscles to control prosthetics and to provide direct sensory feedback.

The BTO will primarily focus on three research areas: restoring and maintaining warfighter abilities, harnessing biological systems, and gaining new insights into biological complexity and living-system dynamics to cultivate applications for human well-being. These focus areas involve everything from brain research to new methods of fighting infectious diseases.

(Source: DARPA)
(Source: DARPA)

Bio-technology is "of growing interest and importance to DARPA, and among the most promising for future major capabilities," Prabhakar said in March 26 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats, and Capabilities. "Biology is nature's ultimate innovator, and any agency that hangs its hat on innovation would be foolish not to look to this master of networked complexity for inspiration and solutions."

Living Foundries was among the programs Prabhakar discussed during the hearing. She said the program is producing new classes of materials with properties for enabling the next generation of mechanical, optical, and electrical products.

She also addressed a more pressing subject of chemical and biological weapons, saying that researchers would typically need decades to gain a "cellular-level understanding" of how new threat agents affect people. A five-year program called Rapid Threat Assessment (RTA) aims to understand the molecular mechanism of threat agents, drugs, biologics, and chemicals. According to DARPA, the goal is to develop countermeasures to chemical and biological weapons within 30 days of exposure to a human cell.

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Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Author
4/7/2014 | 10:31:19 PM
It's worth noting that the creation of DARPA was authorized in 1958 by the same president who had the vision to create the national interstate highway system, President Eisenhower. In DARPA's case, the issue at hand was the launch of Sputnik.  What's also worth noting is DAPRA's annual this year budget is only about $2.8 billion/year, which is small compared to what larger corporations spend on R&D.

User Rank: Ninja
4/5/2014 | 2:41:13 PM
Re: Unhappy marriage
I agree with Charlie. This is interesting science, and hopefully what comes out of it is better protective measures that can be used on the battlefield that can prevent these types of injuries in the first place. I think that's

What I always find fascinating about DARPA is how its technology always ends up trickling down into things that we cannot conceive at first blush. That's what I think is really cool, and hopefully there are some real societal impacts made as a result of this blend of bio and tech. 
Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
4/4/2014 | 7:46:19 PM
Unhappy marriage
There is no real replacement for those who have lost a limb, nor is there an end to the pain involved. So we have to look at this research as "intelligent" prosthetics, not relief for the destruction that modern warfare visits on the human body. And on that basis, may it proceed.
User Rank: Ninja
4/3/2014 | 7:41:17 AM
DARPA has always been one of my favorite places to look for emerging technology.  The initiative to interface electronics with human nerve endings is very cool and will be great for anyone with severe injuries.  I don't think it will end there though, the next step would be enhancement so I guess we can expect to see integrated hardware for humans in the not so distant future.
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