DARPA Plans To Begin Hacking Human Brains

So [DARPA] wants to start hacking human brains, With the help of the biomedical device center at the university of Texas in Dallas. This does sound a bit crazy but DARPA does crazy. Conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day with this one.

The initial plans to turn us all into mindless zombies seem to be shelved for now, however they are working on what they call Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT), which they explain means using the body’s nervous system to enhance and speed up the learning process. This could be achieved by using a process known as ‘synaptic plasticity‘ which opens and closes the brains synapses with electrical stimulation. They hope that by tuning the neural networks responsible for cognitive function it will enhance learning. Let’s just hope they don’t turn any humans into DARPA falling robots.

Gremlins are Air to Air Drones

If you are like most people, your drone flights start on the ground and end either on the ground or–in more cases than most of us want to admit–in a tree. Earlier this year, DARPA awarded initial contracts for the Gremlins program. The idea is to produce unmanned aircraft that can launch from another aircraft and then later have another aircraft recover it.

The idea is to allow a plane to launch an unmanned sensor, for example, while out of range of enemy fire. Later another aircraft can retrieve the drone where a ground crew would get it ready for another flight within 24 hours. An aircraft facing missile fire could unleash a swarm of drones, confusing attackers. The drones have a limited life of about twenty flights, allowing for inexpensive airframes that use existing technology. You can see a concept video from DARPA about how air-launched drones might play a role in future air combat below.

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Toward the Optionally Piloted Aircraft

Aviation Week and Space Technology, the industry’s leading magazine, has been publishing “pilot reports,” on new aircraft for decades. Its pilot report on an aircraft called Centaur ⁠was the first in which the pilot doing the test never touched the controls. Centaur is an optionally-piloted aircraft, or OPA.

The reporter conducted the test while sitting in the back seat of the small, twin engine aircraft. Up front sat a person acting as the safety pilot, his arms calmly resting on his lap. Sitting beside him, in what is ordinarily the co-pilot’s seat, was an engineered series of linkages, actuators, and servos. The safety pilot pulled a lever to engage the mechanisms, and they began moving the pilot’s control stick and pressing the rudder pedals. The actuators are double and redundant; if one set fails another will immediately take over. The safety pilot can disengage the mechanism with a single pull of the lever if something goes wrong; unless something goes wrong he does not touch the controls.

In the back seat, the “operator,” commanded the plane through a laptop, using an interface identical to that of the ground control station for an unmanned vehicle. Through the screen, he could change altitude, fly to waypoints, takeoff or land. Pushing the “launch” button began an autonomous takeoff. The computer held the brakes, pushed the throttles forward, checked the engines and instruments, and released the brakes for the takeoff roll. The plane accelerated, took to the air, and began to climb out on a semi-autonomous flight.

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MIT’s Robotic Cheetah is Getting Even Scarier

Researchers over at MIT are hard at work upgrading their Robotic Cheetah. They are developing an algorithm for bounding movement, after researching how real cheetahs run in the wild.

Mach 2 is fully electric and battery-powered, can currently run at speeds of 10MPH (however they’re predicting it will be able to reach 30MPH in the future), and can even jump over obstacles 33cm tall.

We originally saw the first robotic Cheetah from Boston Dynamics in cooperation with DARPA two years ago — it could run faster than any human alive (28.3MPH) but in its tests it was tethered to its hydraulic power pack and running on a treadmill. It’s unclear if MIT’s Cheetah is a direct descendant from that one, but they are both supported by DARPA.

The technology in this project is nothing short of amazing — its electric motors are actually a custom part designed by one of the professors of Electrical Engineering at MIT, [Jeffrey Lang]. In order for the robot to run smoothly, its bounding algorithm is sending commands to each leg to exert a very precise amount of force during each footstep, just to ensure it maintains the set speed.

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Finally, A Working Jet Pack

Well, kind of. This is one of [Jason Kerestes’] latest projects as a masters engineering student at the Arizona State University — A jet pack designed to increase your running speed by quite literally giving you a boost.

It’s one of the proposed solutions to the 4MM (4 Minute Mile) project, which is part of the ASU Program called iProjects, which brings students and industry together to solve problems. The 4MM project is trying to find a way to make any soldier able to run the 4 minute mile — quite ambitious, but DARPA is actually working on it with [Jason]!

The whole rig only weighs 13lbs and features two electric turbines which provide the thrust. They originally tested the concept by seeing if you could pull a person with an electric golf cart around a track to make them run faster — turns out, you can. Further more scientific testing led them to find that there is a specific thrust to body-weight ratio that works best, with the direction of thrust about 25 degrees below horizontal.  Continue reading “Finally, A Working Jet Pack”

Micro-Robots Are Scary Awesome

A team of scientists at SRI international are creating real-life replicators from Star Gate SG1 — micro-robots capable of smart (and scary!) manufacturing. Thousands working in parallel will be able to achieve tasks previously unheard of, in a completely compact and integrated system.

These tiny ant-like robot systems are magnetically controlled and can use tools, move at incredible speeds, and swarm over surfaces. SRI’s vision was “to have an army of ants under your control”. It’s actually been an ongoing project since the 1990’s — but a recent undisclosed chunk of funding from DARPA has helped accelerate the project — giving it a new title of the MicroFactory for Macro Products project.

You have to see the video to believe it. Potential applications for these tiny swarm-bots include precise pick & place manufacturing, micro bio-technology, electronics manufacturing, and even rapid prototyping of high quality parts.

We get shivers just watching them slide around effortlessly on almost any surface.

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DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials Wrap Up


The DARPA robotics challenge trials 2013 are have finished up. The big winner is Team Schaft, seen above preparing to drive in the vehicle trial. This isn’t the end of the line for DARPA’s robotics challenge – there is still one more major event ahead. The DARPA robotics finals will be held at the end of 2014. The tasks will be similar to what we saw today, however this time the team and robot’s communications will be intentionally degraded to simulate real world disaster situations. The teams today were competing for DARPA funding. Each of the top eight teams is eligible for, up to $1 million USD from DARPA. The teams not making the cut are still welcome to compete in the finals using other sources of funding.

The trials were broken up into 8 events. Door, Debris, Valve, Wall, Hose, Terrain, Ladder, and Vehicle. Each trial was further divided into 3 parts, each with one point available. If a robot completed the entire task with no human intervention it would earn a bonus point. With all bonuses, 32 points were available. Team Schaft won the event with an incredible total of 27 points. In second place was Team IHMC (Institute for Human Machine Cognition) with 20 points. Team IMHC deserves special praise as they were using a DARPA provided Boston Dynamics Atlas Robot. Teams using Atlas only had a few short weeks to go from a completely software simulation to interacting with a real world robot. In third place was Carnegie Mellon University’s Team Tartan Rescue and their Chimp robot with 18 points.

The expo portion of the challenge was also exciting, with first responders and robotics researchers working together to understand the problems robots will face in real world disaster situations. Google’s recent acquisition — Boston Dynamics — was also on hand, running their WildCat and LS3 robots. The only real downside to the competition was the coverage provided by DARPA. The live stream left quite a bit to be desired. The majority of videos on DARPA’s YouTube channel currently consist of 9-10 hour recordings of some of the event cameras. The wrap-up videos also contain very little information on how the robots actually performed during the trials. Hopefully as the days progress, more information and video will come out. For now, please share the timestamp and a description of your favorite part with your comments.

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