DARPA’s podcast series, "Voices from DARPA," offers a revealing and informative window on the minds of the Agency's program managers. In each episode, a program manager from one of DARPA’s six technical offices—Biological Technologies, Defense Sciences, Information Innovation, Microsystems Technology, Strategic Technology, and Tactical Technology—will discuss in informal and personal terms why they are at DARPA and what they are up to. The goal of "Voices from DARPA" is to share with listeners some of the institutional know-how, vision, process, and history that together make the “secret sauce” DARPA has been adding to the Nation’s innovation ecosystem for nearly 60 years. On another level, we at DARPA just wanted to share the pleasure we all have every day—in the elevator, in the halls, in our meeting rooms—as we learn from each other and swap ideas and strive to change what’s possible.
Episode 47: The Life Saver
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Tristan McClure-Begley, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Biological Technologies Office, recounts how he knew he wanted to be a biologist at the age of 7. That, thanks to an engineer dad, a psychologist mom, and a catalytic high-school teacher, all of whom ignited Tristan’s curiosity. Now Tristan is a program manager overseeing an ambitious portfolio of programs that is expanding the boundaries of battlefield medicine as well as neurocognitive science and practice. One of his programs is laying ground work for molecular tissue-stabilization interventions to help severely injured warfighters survive long enough to receive the medical treatment that can save them. In another program he is overseeing, researchers are investigating how peripheral nerve stimulation can improve cognitive tasks such as learning a new language. Two other programs could redefine what is possible in pharmaceutical science and practice. One of these is opening pathways to so-called polypharmaceutical treatments in which a single therapeutic agent intervenes in multiple cellular or physiological targets associated with a disease. The current paradigm centers on developing drugs that interact with a single disease-relevant target. Another of Tristan’s ambitious programs is devoted to warfighters who are suffering from post-traumatic stress and other psychiatric challenges. Researchers working on this project are diving into the clinical successes of hallucinogenic substances, such as LSD and psilocybin, with an eye on identifying new agents that can deliver therapeutic value but without the hallucinogenic effects, which are not suitable for many patients. Says Tristan, “I pretty much want to learn everything about everything.” That’s how you get a DARPA program portfolio like his.
Episode 46: The Jet Packer
Voices from DARPA podcast, Alexander (Xander) Walan, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Tactical Technology Office, pegs the source of his lifelong fascination with aircraft and flight to the Chicago Air and Water Shows his dad took him and his four siblings to when they were children. At DARPA, he has applied that interest, his training in aeronautical engineering, a 22-year career in the Air Force overseeing some 70 technology-development programs, and an MBA to his oversight of programs featuring DARPA’s signature audacity. One program that Xander inherited from a previous program manager proved it was possible to fly and navigate massive aircraft in the stratosphere as potential supplements to satellites by exploiting differing wind conditions at differing altitudes.Test flights of the huge balloons at the center of the program triggered reports of UFOs. Another one of his programs took steps toward aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL), like a helicopter or drone, but at unprecedented speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. No X-plane prototype came out of that effort, but pathways forward and dead-ends to avoid did. Xander’s current primary project, known as the Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE) program, is investigating ways of controlling how air flows over aircraft surfaces to open engineering pathways toward planes that can be steered without the need for moveable surfaces. One more thing: Xander recently got the green light for a small initiative to pursue, in his words, “battlefield personal mobility,” which could lead to small, quiet paragliders or helicopters as well as a type of aeronautic equipment long emblematic of the future: jet packs. Says Xander, “there’s some technology that’s now emerging that might make that more practical.” https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/podcast (https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/podcast)
Episode 45: Ushering Microelectronics into Its Next Era
In this episode of the Voices form DARPA podcast, listeners get a status report on DARPA’s ambitious and expansive Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI) and learn about the many touchpoints that DARPA and the microelectronics sector have shared over the past half-century. Also in the podcast is a preview of a follow-on effort, ERI 2.0, which is designed to accelerate the transition of foundational research and development into prototyping, manufacturing, and delivery of next-generation microelectronics technologies.
Episode 44: Sounds of Innovation 3
Go into a science or engineering laboratory. Close your eyes. And listen. Welcome to our third Sounds of Innovation episode, an intermittent feature of our Voices from DARPA podcast. Rather than hearing the voices of program managers, which is normally what you get in a Voices from DARPA podcast, in each Sounds of Innovation episode, you hear some of the soundscapes of research and development, and you learn just a little bit about the world-changing capabilities those sounds could lead to. See if you can guess how the sounds were produced before our podcast host reveals their origin. One hint for the first set of soundscapes is that they have nothing to do with big drops of rain hitting a tin roof. Here’s a lead regarding the second soundscape: you might want to be sitting when the host reveals the extreme-tech that produced the sound. For the third set of sounds, let’s just say that if you were a mosquito – and we are not saying you are – the sounds definitely would not be music to your ears.
Episode 43: The Sky Master
Voices from DARPA podcast, Scott Wierzbanowski, a program manager since 2016 in the agency’s Tactical Technology Office, recounts how he came of age in a family of test pilots and then embraced the mission of fostering technologies for amplifying the capabilities of airmen, their aircraft, and other defense assets in the sky. Recorded in March 2021, a month before the end of his tour of duty at DARPA, Wierzbanowski, a retired Air Force test pilot, opens windows in the podcast on a lofty and ambitious portfolio of programs that reach even to space. One program delivered hard-won lessons on what it will take to engineer and build an unmanned reusable vehicle that can ferry payloads to low earth orbit with the ease and agility of an aircraft. Another program furthered the ability of human pilots to seamlessly team with automated and robotic systems to achieve complex mission needs with more dexterity than could either team member alone. Two of Wierzbanowski’s programs have been taking steps toward aerial capabilities in which a host aircraft and its crew work, in one case, with multiple sensor-bearing, unmanned, aerial scouts that depart from and return to the mother ship, and in another case, with unmanned weapons-bearing aerial vehicles that can project force in forward positions while enabling expensive and exquisite defense aircraft and their crews to remain out of harm’s way. When he sums up his vision, Wierzbanowski says it’s all about “distributed air operations” in which “UAVs are the ones going into high threat areas and manned aircraft are the ones that are overseeing the complicated air battle.”
Episode 42: The Infrared Visionary
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA (https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/podcast) podcast, Whitney Mason, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Microsystems Technology Office, explains how she became smitten with the science and technology of imaging. Even as a child, Mason was curious about the world, wondering about everything, she says, from why the sky is blue to what makes concrete hard. But what ended up inspiring her most and cementing in her professional trajectory was the fantastic ways that animals see, including the ability to see in the night using infrared light. “A soldier needs to see at night,” Mason says. “Or see through dust. Or find homemade explosives. Or find things really far away. Or track things.” That list of warfighters’ sensory needs explains a lot about the bold portfolio of projects Mason oversees at DARPA. She is out to provide warfighters with some of the smartest, most discerning, most versatile imaging sensors ever devised. As she explains in the podcast, this will require designing into the sensors brain-like functions of identifying what really requires attention in a complex scene of mostly benign features, preprocessing huge amounts of data the ways eyes do before sending information brainward via the optic nerves, and purging raw sensor data of extraneous portions that can be confusing to both people and computers. One of her programs, which aims to shrink otherwise unwieldly infrared imaging systems into much smaller and lighter packages, challenges materials researchers with a task equivalent to reforming a brittle ceramic dinner plate into the shape of cup. That’s just a taste of the tough problems her projects' research teams are working on. Challenging as her job might be, Mason seems to be just where she wants to be. “I have had very fun jobs,” Mason says, “but this is the funnest.”