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DARPA History

History of DARPA and its accomplishments

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In 2016, DARPA rolled out a new Grand Challenge, the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2), with the goal of ensuring that the exponentially growing number of military and civilian wireless devices have ready access to increasingly crowded electromagnetic spectrum when needed. SC2 was designed to encourage researchers to develop smart systems that collaboratively, rather than competitively, adapt in real time to the fast-changing, congested spectrum environment—redefining the conventional spectrum management roles of humans and machines to maximize the flow of radio frequency (RF) signals. The primary goal of SC2 was to imbue radios with advanced machine-learning capabilities so that they could collectively develop strategies that optimize use of the wireless spectrum in ways not possible with today’s intrinsically inefficient approach of pre-allocating exclusive access to designated frequencies.

SC2 unfolded over a three-year period with two preliminary competitions preceding a live finale that occurred in October 2019. Team GatorWings from the University of Florida won first place in the competition, followed by Team MarmotE, comprised of current and former Vanderbilt University researchers, in second place, and Team Zylinium, a three-person start-up with expertise in software-defined radios and AI, in third place.

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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.
At a mountaintop event in New Mexico on October 18, 2016, DARPA handed off ownership its Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) from an Agency-led design and construction program to ownership and operation by U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), which operate the telescope in Australia jointly with the Australian government.
DARPA and key companies from the semiconductor and defense industries established the Semiconductor Technology Advanced Research Network, or STARnet. This effort, which lasted until 2017 when it was superseded by a similar program known as JUMP, supported large university communities to look beyond the current evolutionary directions in microelectronics research and development.
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DARPA embarked on the pathbreaking research and development that would lead to stealth technology in the 1970s. A milestone in that R&D trajectory was the production of two demonstrator aircraft by Lockheed in what was called the HAVE BLUE program. This resulted in the first practical combat stealth aircraft, which made its first test flight by the end of 1977. A year later, the company received a contract to scale-up engineering development of what become the F-117 and which became operational in October 1983. In 1976, Northrup received a sole-source grant by DARPA to develop the BSAX aircraft, later named TACIT Blue aircraft, which could operate radar sensors while maintaining its own low radar cross-section. The experimental aircraft first flew in 1982 and the many stealth, radar, and aerodynamic innovations it incorporated laid foundations for development of the B-2 stealth bomber, which was first used in combat in 1999.

Stealth aircraft destroyed key targets in conflicts in Iraq, both in the 1991 Desert Storm operation and in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom; in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001; and in Libya in 2011. Complementing the key contributions of stealth capabilities in these missions was Department of Defense’s use of other technologies, including DARPA-enabled precision-guided munitions deployed by stealth and non-stealth aircraft. Since their initial development and deployment, stealth technologies have been applied to a wide range of weapon systems and military platforms, among them missiles, helicopters, ground vehicles, and ships.

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