New DARPA Programs Focus on Quantum Coherence, Biological Sensors, and Epigenome Readers

February 19, 2018 by Chantelle Dubois

Here’s a look at a few current projects announced by DARPA this year, exploring quantum coherence, biological sensors, and epigenomic readers.

What's DARPA up to now? Here's a look at the innovative sensors that work in combination with aquatic lifeforms, epigenomic readers, and research for quantum computing funded by the US government.

DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) focuses on researching and developing future technologies that are cutting edge and relevant to the national security of the United States. 

The agency operates with a budget of around $3 billion per year to manage, organize, and fund research into important technologies. Here’s a look at a few current projects announced by DARPA this year. 

Extending Quantum Coherence for Quantum Computing

One of the challenges of trying to use quantum systems is the short-lived nature of quantum states, which decay rapidly and are sensitive to disturbances in their surrounding environment. This is part of why cryogenic cooling is required for quantum computers. Driven and Nonequilibrium Quantum Systems (DRINQS) is a research program that will focus on using non-equilibrium to extend the coherence of a quantum state. 

DARPA’s program manager, Ale Lukaszew, described this logic by using the analogy of trying to balance a broomstick in the palm of your hand—you make adjustments to your hand’s position to keep the broomstick balanced, so the broom is in equilibrium but your hand is not. Once your hand becomes sill, the broomstick no longer maintains balance and will fall over. 


Image courtesy of DARPA.


The successful outcome of the program could lead to the development of quantum-based sensors, such as atomic-clocks which can be used to take ultra-precise time-based measurements of Earth’s gravitational fields. This could lead to the discovery of underground caves or tunnels, which certainly has national security applications. 

DRINQS is certainly an interesting concept of using instability to create stability and could lead to breakthroughs for quantum computing. 

Underwater Sensors Inspired by Biology

Some of the best sensors on this planet can be found in nature—a fact that DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office is taking advantage of via the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program. The program’s projects will explore the symbiotic use of hardware, software, and living organisms to be able to detect and monitor aquatic regions such as shore areas and straits. 

The program is based off of the fact that some living organisms are naturally good at detecting a variety of stimuli including tactile, acoustic, electrical, and optical. The idea is that it's possible to combine these natural detection methods with hardware and software. As an example, if an aquatic organism reacts in a certain way to noises then equipment can be developed to monitor and decipher this behavior and be used to inform other detection methods. 



Using this organic combination is also helpful because the aquatic creatures maintain themselves, skipping the process of trying to design and fine-tune electronic sensors for use underwater.

Potential projects can also suggest the modification of organisms, but tests must be done in controlled environments and safeguards must also be developed for future use. PALS will be holding a proposal day for projects on March 2nd in Arlington, Virginia. 

An Epigenome Reader for Real-Time Threat Evaluation

Imagine a portable imaging device that, using non-invasive methods, can get a readout of epigenetic history in real time—a history of environmental changes to DNA over a lifetime. Sounds a bit like science fiction, right? That's precisely what the Epigenetic CHaracterization and Observation (ECHO) program intends to develop. 

The program will require multiple complex tasks to be accomplished:

  • characterize and map changes to the human genome when exposed to certain dangerous materials
  • develop a system that can identify these changes and accurately determine the material that caused it and the time of contact
  • contain this system in a suitable portable device that can produce full results within 30 minutes



The technology is intended to be used for determining if an adversary has been in contact with materials used in weapons of mass destruction—even if they have rid themselves of all physical evidence. The idea is that the device in question could be used to detect epigenetic markers that could indicate a person's past exposure to threat agents—in real time. It could also be used to diagnose and monitor the health of troops who may accidentally come in contact with such materials. There is also a potential for the technology to spin off into civilian use for medical diagnostics. 

Of course, being able to get a historical read out of someone’s biological history can be a massive invasion of privacy—DARPA intends to work with ethics and legal committees to develop plans to mitigate this impact so that we can avoid a Gattaca-like future. 



Many of DARPA's programs don't produce technologies that are standardized and made available to the public. It's interesting, however, to see what programs receive funding and how they could influence future designs.