Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyTagged Content List

Novel Sensing and Detection

Novel concepts and devices capable of detecting and monitoring physical phenomena

Showing 171 results for Sensors RSS
One of the world’s earliest and most well-known spy satellite programs, the now declassified Corona photo-reconnaissance program was jointly funded by DARPA and the Central Intelligence Agency. Withstanding a series of initial failures, the program scored its first success in August 1960 when a canister of film dropped back through the atmosphere was successfully recovered, delivering a trove of intelligence photos taken over Soviet territory. The Corona program continued to acquire crucial Cold War intelligence until the mission ended in 1972.
DARPA established the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) in 1980, combining the Nuclear Monitoring Research Office, materials science research, and cybernetic technology efforts into a single office. Since its inception, DSO has spawned two additional technology offices at DARPA: the Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) in 1992 and the Biological Technologies Office (BTO) in 2014.

From 1971 to 1974, ARPA supported research on "glassy" carbon, a unique foam material composed of pure carbon and that combined low weight, high strength, and chemical inertness. The program led to techniques for producing the material with an exceptionally porous, high surface area combined with high rigidity, low resistance to fluid flow, and resistance to very high temperatures in a non-oxidizing environment.

Eyed originally for roles in electro-chemistry because of its high surface area, the material proved suitable for surgical implants, especially heart valves. Development of the valves began about three years after the end of the ARPA program, with production commencing in 1985. In 1990, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its approval for using glassy carbon in implants in a valve market that grew within the decade to 100,000 units and a market value of $200 million. A related form, pyrolytic carbon, remains common in the inner orifice and leaflets of artificial valves.


With the blue water threat of free-ranging, nuclear-armed Soviet submarines coming to a head in 1971, the Department of Defense (DoD) assigned DARPA a singular mission: Revamp the U.S. military’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities to track enemy subs under the open ocean where the U.S. Navy’s existing Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) was falling short. At the time, the U.S. Navy was already working on what would become its Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System, or SURTASS, through which surface ships towed long, mobile arrays of sensors to listen for submarine activity. Telemetry and data-handling issues greatly limited the system’s capabilities.

That’s when DARPA committed funds for the LAMBDA program to modify oil-industry-designed seismic towed arrays so they could detect submarine movement. DARPA-funded scientists began experiments at submarine depths, and soon generated spectacular results. In 1981, the DoD gave quick approval for production of a LAMBDA-enhanced SURTASS array, without requiring further study, a highly unusual decision for a program that had experienced a major technology shift late in the game. The system—which with DARPA participation would become enhanced by way of leading-edge computational tools, satellite-based data linkages, and computer networking—would become the Navy’s go-to method for tracking mobile Soviet subs for the remainder of the Cold War. By 1985, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman was so confident in his force’s ability to keep tabs on elusive Soviet boomers (a nickname for ballistic missile submarines), he declared that in the event the Cold War turned hot, he would attack Soviet subs “in the first five minutes of the war.”

Leveraging past DARPA developments in laser-based versions of RADAR—known as LIDAR, short for light detection and ranging—the High-Altitude LIDAR Operations Experiment (HALOE) provided unprecedented access to high-resolution 3-D geospatial data. First deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, HALOE was one of several DARPA advances directly supporting the warfighter that earned the Agency the Joint Meritorious Unit Award from the Secretary of Defense in 2012.