Hagel gets glimpse into future of DARPA tech

DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talk about the latest updates on technologies coming out of DARPA. (Photo: DOD) DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talk about the latest updates on technologies coming out of DARPA. (Photo: DOD)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel checked out some of the latest technology coming out the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at a special event Tuesday.

In the secretary’s conference room, Arati Prabhakar, director of DARPA, provided Hagel with a demonstration of the agencies’ prosthetic technology advancements. Fred Downs Jr., a veteran who lost his arm while serving in Vietnam, demonstrated how he was able to control his prosthetic arm, which he said took only a few hours to learn.

“Through a combination of foot movements, he’s able to control the elbow, wrist and fingers in a variety of movements, including the ‘thumbs-up’ sign he gave Hagel,” according to a Defense Department release.


The arm is designed to mimic the shape, size and weight of a human arm. Because it’s modular, it can replace a lost hard, lower arm or complete arm.

This type of technology would have a major impact on the lives of injured troops, Hagel said.

“This is transformational,” he added. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Another impressive piece of technology was a prosthetic arm and hand that respond to brain impulses. Matt Johannes, an engineer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, demonstrated how users can control the equipment with their thoughts by using a sensor implanted in the brain.

The next step in this technology is placing sensors in the fingers that can send sensations back to the brain. The tactile feedback system should be operational in a few months, according to Dr. Justin Sanchez, a program manager at DARPA who works with prosthetics and brain-related technology.


“People said it would be 50 years before we saw this technology in humans,” Sanchez said. “We did it in a few years.”

Hagel also got to check out an overview of DARPA’s Robotic Challenge, a competition to develop a robot for rescue-and-disaster response, inspired by the devastation following the nuclear accident in Japan in March 2011.

The last three technologies were demonstrated behind closed doors, but according to a defense official speaking on background, Hagel was briefed on three other DARPA programs:

  • Plan X, a foundational cyber-warfare program to develop platforms for DOD to plan for, conduct and assess cyber-warfare in a manner similar to kinetic warfare
  • Persistent close air support, a system which will, among other things, link up joint tactical air controllers with close air support aircraft using commercially available tablets;
  • A long-range anti-ship missile, planned to reduce dependence on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, network links and GPS navigation in electronic warfare environments. The program also focuses on innovative terminal survivability approaches and precision lethality in the face of advanced countermeasures.

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