Technological Advances Thanks to a Shadowy Outfit of the US Military

If there is one thing that I like about the military, it is the gadgets and technology which sprout out of it. Growing up with James Bond movies and watching Q’s R&D division outfit 007 before every adventure, I associate DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to be its real-life equivalent – where futuristic gadgets and big boy toys are constantly churned out. DARPA is where science fiction comes to life.

We know that the Internet was a direct result of DARPA’s quest to link the different defense departments. The protocol that ensued gave the world the backbone of the Internet.

Then came Sir Tim-Berners Lee, and the web, which was also a result of DARPA, as was the operating system that helped each individual computer connect to the Internet. But that’s old news…

DARPA has given us a lot more since those early days of the internet. Whether you agree with a world-power military or not, I can guarantee you are a direct beneficiary of one of DARPA’s creations. Everything from wearable technology to medicine contains DARPA DNA. Here are just five amazing creations from DARPA, which I think are the best:


Video Conferencing

I owe a huge part of my lifestyle, and the fact that I am able to care for my kids on a personal and one to one basis, and to be able to be a Fatherpreneur, because of the Internet. More specifically, I owe this freedom to video conferencing, which often allows me to work from home, deal with customers and watch my kids grow.

The story of video conferencing began with NLS. The NLS, short for On Line System, created by Douglas Engelbart, was created on the heels of his idea that all of man’s intellect should be ‘on line’. He first took the idea to the US Air Force of Scientific Research and there it came to be known as the Augment System.

Engelbart’s main purpose was to be able to get different sections of the department to collaborate efficiently, using an electronic medium. By putting the ‘human intellect’ online we are able to collaborate effectively, regardless of spatial distance. This was first demonstrated in 1969, if you can believe it. Engelbart’s innovation was entirely funded by DARPA (at that time it was ARPA), NASA and the Air Force.

The NLS project alone was the primordial equivalent of the computer generation. From the ubiquitous computer mouse that predated the trackpad, to multiple windows, shared screen teleconferencing, virtual terminals, and video conferencing, all these technologies we take for granted today, that NLS project was the founding entity. And it was funded largely by DARPA.



TOR, we know, stands for The Onion Routing. Onion? Well, it is called that because it is nested through virtual layers  – like layers of an onion, when it is being encrypted. This is great for researching and learning about stuff that you want to keep from snooping eyes. No, it’s not all about porn – get your mind out of the gutter. TOR is a software that puts a computer on to a network which allows the user a high degree of anonymity.

The reason why I chose this as one of my top five DARPA creations is because, believe it or not, there are a whole number of countries out there that still snoop on an individual’s communications, NSA-esque. Many  countries in Asia still practice snooping under the guise of national harmony or national security. Many countries authorities even monitor religious web-surfing. And even though social media got some of the credit during the Arab Spring, particularly Twitter, the unsung hero was TOR.

The TOR bundle and protocol was originally designed for the US Navy by the folks at… you guessed it – DARPA. If you don’t use TOR, you should give it a try. There is a little sacrifice in terms of speed, but you may appreciate the anonymity.


3D mapping

Have you heard of the Urban Photonic Sandtable Display? No? Well, then you heard it here first. This is a pretty cool development.

Remember old World War II movies where you would see these large tables that had mockups of the strike zone, and military personnel moving aircraft, ship or tank models around the mockup, to give the brass a visual depiction of the battlefield? Well, those days are truly over thanks to DARPA’s Urban Photonic Sandtable Display. Today, not only can we depict mockups, superimposed on Google MAP (another DARPA first, by the way), but we can now model deployments, buildings, tanks, even in an urban warfare setting, in real time with a 3D holographic superimposition.

Now that DARPA got the ball rolling, you can see it take shape with some companies like Zebra Imaging. Their ZScape Motion Display gets past the need for 3D printing and instead gets you to visualize anything from prototype camshafts to laying siege to hostile territory. The same 3D holographic imaging technology has spread its utility to smartphones. All of which do not need special glasses. As processing power increases from the current 1 teraflop to the exaflop range in the next 4 years, 3D holographic technology could move from tablet size applications to movie screens.


Cloud Computing

Whether you are an iOS fan or an Android enthusiast, the one thing that all of us have in common is that we are pretty stoked about cloud computing. Cloud computing is this generation’s next generation ideal. It improves security, increases efficiency and deploys assets, worldwide if necessary, on a per need basis. Cloud computing opens the door to a new paradigm in computing, eliminates the need for hard drives, and it started with DARPA…

And, recently, DARPA has gone one step further with the cloud. Even though it is just as possible to breach Cloud Networks as it is to breach home systems, DARPA has upped the ante on hackers. They’ve funded research into shielding cloud networks.

When we hook on to any of the cloud networks, the infrastructure that resulted in that secure and seamless connection came from DARPA.



Finally, we come to my favorite. These are all great technologies we utilize in our day-to-day, but this one tops them all from a convenience standpoint. It has saved my bacon more than just a few times when I was on the road or when I fly cross country in a private light aircraft.

GPS technology has come so far in just a few years that it is the main ingredient in driverless cars and autonomous drones (like the ones Amazon is thinking about using). Because of DARPA, even my kid’s simple phone has a GPS on it that is accurate to within a few feet, able to locate almost anything on the planet and get anywhere on the planet.


Time has flown by since DARPA first came to life. It has been more than half a century since its founding and more than 50 technological innovations later, and hundreds of smaller contributions, DARPA’s present annual budget of $2.8 billion seems like a bargain when you consider the kinds of things that it has given life to. Unlike most government organizations, DARPA’s ROI is impressive. President Eisenhower created it in response to the Sputnik launch and placed the cold war out of the realm of politics and set off the technology race. While DARPA may be a military endeavor to further geopolitical interests and national security, its output has given America a commercial edge of incalculable value.


More Cool Stuff From DARPA

About the author

AJ Antony

AJ is a naturalist and economic realist. His articles are based on his study of world events and common sense, not conventional wisdom. He believes technology allows humanity to get past the deficiencies inherent in civilization's inadequate political methods and deficient economic tools. His observations are sometimes radical, sometimes provocative and sometimes misunderstood. But they are effective in evoking a discourse. Ultimately, that is his intention and desire - to stir the pot in search of solutions to today's political and economical challenges.

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