Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program personnel demonstrated five technologies under development to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the secretary’s conference room yesterday.
DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar provided the secretary with a demonstration of the agency’s latest prosthetics technology.
The wounded warrior demonstrating the device was Fred Downs Jr., an old friend of Hagel’s who lost an arm in a landmine explosion while fighting in Vietnam. Hagel hugged him and shook his mechanical hand, with Downs joking, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“He and I worked together many years ago,” said Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts during his service as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam. “How you doing, Fred? How’s your family?”
Downs demonstrated how he controls movements of the arm, which appeared to be partly covered in translucent white plastic, with two accelerometers strapped to his feet. Through a combination of foot movements, he’s able to control the elbow, wrist and fingers in a variety of movements, including the “thumbs-up” sign he gave Hagel.
It took only a few hours to learn to control the arm, Downs said.
“It’s the first time in 45 years, since Vietnam, I’m able to use my left hand, which was a very emotional time,” he said.
Dr. Justin Sanchez, a medical doctor and program manager at DARPA who works with prosthetics and brain-related technology, told Hagel that DARPA’s arm is designed to mimic the shape, size and weight of a human arm. It’s modular too, so it can replace a lost hand, lower arm or a complete arm.
Hagel said such technology would have a major impact on the lives of injured troops.
“This is transformational,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Next, Sanchez showed Hagel a video of a patient whose brain had been implanted with a sensor at the University of Pittsburgh, allowing her to control an arm with her thoughts.
Matt Johannes, an engineer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, showed Hagel a shiny black hand and arm that responds to brain impulses. The next step is to put sensors in the fingers that can send sensations back to the brain.
“If you don’t have line of sight on something you’re trying to grab onto, you can use that sensory information to assist with that task,” Johannes said.
The tactile feedback system should be operational within a few months, he said.
“People said it would be 50 years before we saw this technology in humans,” Sanchez said. “We did it in a few years.”
Next, officials gave Hagel an overview of the DARPA Robotic Challenge, a competition to develop a robot for rescue and disaster response that was inspired by the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan.
Virginia Tech University’s entrant in the contest, the hulking 6-foot-2-inch Atlas robot developed by Boston Dynamics, stood in the background as Hagel was shown a video of robots walking over uneven ground and carrying things.
Brad Tousley, head of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, explained to Hagel that Hollywood creates unrealistic expectations of robotic capability. In fact, he said, building human-like robots capable of autonomously doing things such as climbing ladders, opening doors and carrying things requires major feats of engineering and computer science.
Journalists were escorted out before the remaining three technologies could be demonstrated because of classified concerns. A defense official speaking on background told reporters that Hagel was brought up to date on the progress of three other DARPA programs:
— Plan X, a foundational cyberwarfare program to develop platforms for the Defense Department to plan for, conduct and assess cyberwarfare in a manner similar to kinetic warfare;
— Persistent close air support, a system to, among other things, link up joint tactical air controllers with close air support aircraft using commercially available tablets; and
— A long-range anti-ship missile, planned to reduce dependence on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, network links and GPS navigation in electronic warfare environments. Autonomous guidance algorithms should allow the LRASM to use less-precise target cueing data to pinpoint specific targets in the contested domain, the official said. The program also focuses on innovative terminal survivability approaches and precision lethality in the face of advanced countermeasures.