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 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.”
Episode 41: The AI Tutor
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Bruce Draper, a program manager since 2019 in the agency’s Information Innovation Office, explains how his fascination with the ways people reason, think, and believe what they believe steered him into a lifelong embrace of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI) research. At DARPA, Draper—who says he welcomes working at a place where an academic scientist like himself can influence the direction of entire fields of research—oversees a portfolio of programs that collectively are about making artificial intelligence learn faster, less prone to mistakes and flawed inferences, and less vulnerable to misuse and deception. One of his programs aims to imbue computers with nonverbal communication abilities so that AIs collaborating with people can integrate a human being’s facial and gestural cues with written and oral ones. Another program seeks to make machine-learning algorithms into quicker studies that require simpler data sets to learn how to identify objects, actions, and other categories of phenomena. Two of Draper’s programs fall into the category of “adversarial AI,” in which, for example, those with ill intent might try to deceive an AI with “poisoned data” that could lead to inappropriate inferences and actions. Yet another program, a new one, aims to develop AIs that can serve as competent guides for people in the midst of tasks, say, fixing the brakes on a military aircraft or preparing tiramisu for a dinner party. “It’s sort of the do-it-yourself revolution on steroids,” says Draper. AI holds exciting possibilities, he adds, but it will take close attention to privacy concerns, built-in biases, and other hidden perils for AI to become the technology we want it to be for us all.
PR or Progress?
This was a huge relief but then the next natural question is: Why did we have to resort to a total life-freeze and so unprepared for these events at every systematic level? Where is this knowledge and experience propagated to if not the Homeland Security, CDC, etc...
At the minimum, the readiness of the Healthcare delivery industry & adequate training of the Healthcare staff should have been achieved by now.
Please keep up the great work & THANK YOU.
Interesting AI developments
Thought provoking discussion. I enjoyed hearing about new developments
DARPA is so cutting-edge and I would love to hear more podcasts from these incredible individuals;project managers leading the future. I have no idea if we’ll get anymore podcasts, but to the individual who made these interviews possible I truly appreciate your effort into making these idea public. And thanks to the host who in my opinion has always done a fantastic job electrifying the topics into the truly captivating concepts that are leading our future today.