60 Years of DARPA Technological Advancements: The ARPANET to the Atlas Robot

June 13, 2018 by Chantelle Dubois

Since 1958, DARPA has been credited with the development of some of the most important technologies used today, including the Internet and GPS. Here is a look at DARPA’s 60 year history and some major projects in electrical engineering.

Since 1958, DARPA has been credited with the development of some of the most important technologies used today, including the Internet and GPS. Here is a look at DARPA’s 60-year history and some major projects in electrical engineering.

In 1957, the world heard the heartbeat of the first satellite launched into orbit—a feat achieved by the USSR during the height of the Cold War. 

During this era, both the USA and USSR were competing for the higher ground (at times, quite literally), at odds with one another to demonstrate who was the most technologically superior—and hence a true world superpower.

Sputnik 1 orbiting around the planet, making the world aware of its presence, created a pressing urgency at the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency. 

One of the responses to the orbiting of Sputnik 1 was for the US to establish the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The agency's goal was to bring the US back to the forefront of technological innovation and to ensure their military technology was on the bleeding edge with no future surprises. Later, “Defense” would be added to the title of the agency, which is now known as DARPA.

The agency has worked outside typical research and government processes to ensure the ability to quickly innovate and develop new ideas, reporting directly to the Secretary of Defense. DARPA does not host its own staff, but instead awards short-term contracts for research to project managers who are scientists at other research institutions. 

Since 1958, DARPA has been credited with the development of some of the most important technologies used today, including the Internet and GPS. Here is a look at DARPA’s 60-year history and some major projects in electrical engineering.

Television and Infrared Observation Satellites AKA TIROS (1959) 

The TIROS project would bring together several agencies, engineers, and scientists together to develop a satellite capable of weather monitoring from space—the partnership involved ARPA, NASA, NOAA, and the Defense Department.

When TIROS 1 launched in April 1960, it became the first dedicated weather satellite in orbit and provided over 20,000 photos for weather analysis and storm tracking.  


Image courtesy of DARPA


TRANSIT (1960) 

TRANSIT was a collaboration between ARPA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the US Navy to provide satellite-based positioning.

The technology for TRANSIT was based on the realization that the position of a satellite could be determined by radio emissions relative to a receiver due to the Doppler effect. This system was a precursor to GPS, which wouldn’t become available until the mid-90s. 


The Computer Mouse (1964)

Human-computer interaction was a relatively important area of research for ARPA, and new ways to interface with computers has been regularly explored. The first computer mouse was created in 1964 by Douglas Engelbart who also worked on ARPANET. The mouse was made out of wood and had only one button. 


Image courtesy of DARPA


First Self-Navigation Robot (1966)

Navigation is a significant aspect of robotics research and, today, extremely sophisticated systems exist that can even allow an underwater vehicle to navigate and map completely unknown caves without any operator assistance.

In 1966, however, a self-navigating robot was still a concept straight out of science fiction. Charles Rosen from the Stanford Research Institute submitted a proposal for DARPA support in a self-navigating robot. In the early 1970s, Shakey the Robot was delivered, featuring stepping motors, a TV camera, a range finder, and radio communications, and could navigate through a set of rooms autonomously. 


Image courtesy of DARPA


ARPANET (1969)

One of DARPA’s most famous technological contributions is, of course, ARPANET—the precursor of the modern Internet.

ARPANET was born from several ideas but the first was J.C.R. Licklader’s 1963 memo on an “intergalactic network” which could allow computers to share resources through a time-sharing network. Licklader envisioned a network that would be impervious to disruption.

The TCP/IP protocol would soon be developed, and several nodes installed in universities across the USA and Europe. The first message to be sent over the Internet would be “lo”—an error when trying to send “login”. Of course, the technology was improved, eventually adopted by the public, and today the Internet is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in history. 

Gallium Arsenide (1970)

Materials science is an important area of research for electronics development—faster, cooler, more efficient chips are possible with novel new materials. In the 1970s, DARPA began funding research into gallium arsenide, which promised those traits desirable to electronics. It allowed transistors to operate faster and allowed for the miniaturization of the GPS receiver. However, silicon still remained the chip material of choice due to the price disparity between the two.


Personalized-Assistant-that-Learns (2002)

It may seem strange, but the technology behind Siri and Alexa originated from DARPA-funded military research to make decision making more effective and streamlined. The idea was that relevant information could be curated and presented so that actions could be taken in a more coordinated and timely manner. The technology continues to be used and improved for military purposes and has also branched off into commercial uses, making personal assistants available everywhere from your smartphone to many modern cars. 


High-Altitude LIDAR Operations (2010)

LIDAR is a useful, optical-based, 3D mapping and obstacle detecting technology that is used frequently in robotics, autonomous driving, and unmanned aerial vehicles. However, through a DARPA partnership, the US military is also using LIDAR to create high-resolution 3D maps from aircraft.

In particular, the HALOE system is 100 times faster than a typical LIDAR mapping system, capable of mapping half of Afghanistan in only 90 days. This task would otherwise take 30 years using a typical LIDAR system.


Image courtesy of DARPA


Atlas Disaster-Response Robot (2013)

Boston Dynamics is now relatively well known within the robotics community. Their robots are highly advanced, stable systems that can perform backflips, run, and are resistant to being kicked or knocked over. Their movements are natural in appearance, a huge technological feat.

Atlas was developed as a result of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which fostered the creation of robots that could assist humans during disasters.


These are just some highlights from DARPA’s successes. What are your favorites not mentioned here? Let us know in the comments below.


Featured image courtesy of DARPA