Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyAbout UsHistory and Timeline

Where the Future Becomes Now

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created with a national sense of urgency in February 1958 amidst one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Cold War and the already-accelerating pace of technology. In the months preceding the official authorization for the agency’s creation, Department of Defense Directive Number 5105.15, the Soviet Union had launched an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, and the world’s second satellite, Sputnik II… More

In 1993, program manager Stuart Wolf initiated what become a sustained sequence of programs that helped develop the foundations of magnetics-based and quantum microelectronics. The first program, Spintronics, catalyzed the development of non-volatile magnetic memory (MRAM) devices and led to SPiNS, a program that sought to develop spin-based integrated circuits (ICs). During this period, DARPA started a dozen related programs in the field of magnetics and electron spin for microelectronics that collectively helped launch increasingly diverse and complex technologies, including ones that led to astoundingly dense data storage.
Launched on July 13, 1994, the 198-kg DARPASAT demonstrated the possibility of placing in orbit a lightweight, low-cost payload for enhancing operational defense and warfighting capabilities. The primary performer, Ball Aerospace, oversaw the design, fabrication, integration, and testing of the spacecraft bus, which carried two government-supplied payloads. With frugal management of battery use and thermal loads, DARPASAT surpassed its mission goal of a three-year lifetime by lasting for eight years.
Micrelectromechanical Systems
For many years beginning in 1994, DARPA provided substantial funding in the then emergent arena of micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMs). With lineage in microelectronics technology, MEMs researchers cleverly adapted standard semiconductor-fabrication methods to fabricate miniature mechanical structures such as flexible membranes, cantilevers, and even trains of interdigitated gears, and integrated these with electronics to create a menagerie of MEM systems. Among the target deliverables for the DoD were inertial navigation devices for smartening up weapons and tracking soldiers, miniaturized “laboratories on a chip” for such uses as detecting biological weapons in the field, and optical switches and displays. DARPA’s patient support is widely credited with adding consequential momentum to the field of MEMs, which since has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar market in the military and civilian sectors.
Sensor-Fuzed Weapon
In 1994, the Sensor-Fuzed Weapon entered the Air Force Inventory. The weapon is an air-to-ground munition designed to meet the Air Force requirement for a general-purpose weapon that provides multiple kills per pass; can be employed over a wide area; functions under adverse weather conditions, at night, in an electronic countermeasures environment; and can be deployed from frontline fighters and bombers. DARPA began work in advanced weapons concepts for the Sensor Fuzed Weapon in the Assault Breaker Program as the Skeet Delivery Vehicle (SDV). In that program and related programs, DARPA developed and demonstrated a warhead and a simple infrared sensor concept leading to a 5.25-inch warhead, a more sophisticated sensor with target discrimination software, and a BLU launching/dispersal system. The smart projectile is a sensor-fuzed warhead comprised of an infrared sensor, a safe and arming device, a thermal battery, and a copper liner. The infrared sensor detects the target and fuzes the warhead to explosively form the copper liner into a kinetic energy projectile that can defeat both armored and soft vehicle targets.
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Microwave/Analog Technology
DARPA launched the Microwave and Analog Front End Technology (MAFET) program in 1995 as a follow-on to the Millimeter Wave Monolithic Integrated Circuits (MIMIC) program, which began in 1987. MAFET aimed to significantly reduce non-recurring costs for microwave and millimeter-wave sensor systems for military applications.
DARPA developed the first medium-size endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), Amber, which directly led to the Gnat 750 UAV and the Air Force-operated Tier 2 Predator UAV used in Bosnia. At altitudes of up to 25,000 feet for periods exceeding forty hours, the Predator aircraft operated successfully as an element of Exercise Roving Sands in early 1995 and was deployed in the Bosnia crisis to support UN/NATO operations. Originally a Navy-Army joint effort, the Predator UAV was transitioned to the Air Force in 1995 for operation and maintenance. The Amber Program was initiated in 1984, under DARPA’s rapid prototyping philosophy.

The X-31 experimental aircraft was designed and built by Rockwell and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB), as part of a joint U.S. and German Enhanced Fighter Maneuverability program to improve pilots’ abilities to control the aircraft’s pitch and yaw with more finesse than was possible in most conventional fighters. One outcome was the ability, with the help of design elements such as thrust vectoring, to execute controlled flight at extreme angles of attack at which conventional aircraft would stall or lose control.

DARPA joined the cause by sponsoring tests of the X-31. During a test on November 6, 1992, one of the two X-31s that were built in the program, achieved controlled flight at a 70° angle of attack. On April 29, 1993, the second X-31 successfully executed a swift, minimum-radius, 180° turn using a post-stall maneuver, a maneuver well beyond the ability of conventional aircraft. Of the two aircraft, one survived to the conclusion of the X-31 program in June 1995. That aircraft underwent further research at the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. Its ultimate destination was Germany where it remains on display at the Deutsches Museum Flugwerft Schleissheim.

ARPA renamed DARPA, again
With a desire by national leadership to re-emphasize the Agency’s focus on defense matters over commercial ones, ARPA regains its D for Defense to again become DARPA.