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CLEO 06: DARPA keeps its eye on the far-side

23 May 2006

Keeping ideas fresh is the key to finding the next disruptive technology explains DARPA's deputy director, Robert Leheny.

CLEO/QELS' well attended plenary session was the perfect platform for DARPA's deputy director, Robert Leheny, to reveal just how the agency manages to stay on top of the latest technology. DARPA's approach is to break down its funding into what it calls near-, mid- and far-term areas, with the aim of bringing ideas across from the far-side to the near-term.

"The agency was created about 50 years ago to mine the farside, to look for disruptive defense technologies that are off-the-roadmap or out-of-the-box," Leheny told the audience. "There's no incentive for other organizations to make these investments."

DARPA's 2006 budget is almost $3 billion, with around $280 million allocated to projects involving photonics. "We have been investing in photonics for over 20 years, although we have no long term commitment to any particular technology," said Leheny. "The investment is purely dependent on the ideas."

To keep its ideas fresh, DARPA's 125 program managers come into the organization on a limited term employment. "The typical term at DARPA is three to six years," explained Leheny. "This allows us to have an agency that can change almost over night, with around 25% of the staff rotating out each year." By replacing staff with the latest thinkers in a particular field, DARPA is in a position to move quickly into new technology areas.

Leheny is keen to point out that DARPA is not a venture capital organization, because it takes no long term equity, prefering instead, "to allow events to take care of themselves."

The agency has no labs of its own and all of the activity is outsourced. Around 63% of the agency's budget is invested in industry and 16% in the university sector, with the remaining going to government laboratories and institutions.

Hot topics are numerous and range from "flat" long-wave infrared cameras that can conform to the geometry of a helmet or an airplane and use rapid signal processing to give high-resolution images, through to highly efficient solar cells. DARPA's approach here is to spread the incident radiation intelligently over planar, rather than stacked, heterogeneous cells so that different wavelengths are directed towards the most appropriate detector material.

See DARPA's homepage for a full list of the agency's current projects.

By James Tyrrell, Long Beach, CA.

James Tyrrell is News Editor on Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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