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Main article: DARPA

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DARPA design shifts round wheels to triangular tracks in a moving vehicle

05:20 | 26 June

As part of its Ground X-Vehicle Technologies program, DARPA is showcasing some new defense vehicle tech that’s as futuristic as it is practical. One of the innovations, a reconfigurable wheel-track, comes out of Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center in partnership with DARPA. The wheel-track is just one of a handful of designs meant to improve survivability of combat vehicles beyond just up-armoring them.

As you can see in the video, the reconfigurable wheel-track demonstrates a seamless transition between a round wheel shape and a triangular track in about two seconds and the shift between its two modes can be executed while the vehicle is in motion without cutting speed. Round wheels are optimal for hard terrain while track-style treads allow an armored vehicle to move freely on softer ground.

According to Ground X-Vehicle Program Manager Major Amber Walker, the tech offers “instant improvements to tactical mobility and maneuverability on diverse terrains” — an advantage you can see on display in the GIF below.

While wheel technology doesn’t sound that exciting, the result is visually impressive and smooth enough to prompt a double-take.

The other designs featured in the video are noteworthy as well, with one offering a windowless navigation technology called Virtual Perspectives Augmenting Natural Experiences (V-PANE) that integrates video from an array of mounted LIDAR and video cameras to recreate a realtime model of a windowless vehicle’s surroundings. Another windowless cockpit design creates “virtual windows” for a driver, with 3D goggles for depth enhancement, head-tracking and wraparound window display screens displaying data outside the all-terrain vehicle in realtime.



DARPA is funding new tech that can identify manipulated videos and ‘deepfakes’

04:27 | 1 May

The Menlo Park-based nonprofit research group SRI International has been awarded three contracts by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to wage war on the newest front in fake news. Specifically, DARPA’s Media Forensics program is developing tools capable of identifying when videos and photos have been meaningfully altered from their original state in order to misrepresent their content.

The most infamous form of this kind of content is the category called “deepfakes” — usually pornographic video that superimposes a celebrity or public figure’s likeness into a compromising scene. Though software that makes that makes deepfakes possible is inexpensive and easy to use, existing video analysis tools aren’t yet up to the task of identifying what’s real and what’s been cooked up.

As articulated by its mission statement, that’s where the Media Forensics group comes in:

“DARPA’s MediFor program brings together world-class researchers to attempt to level the digital imagery playing field, which currently favors the manipulator, by developing technologies for the automated assessment of the integrity of an image or video and integrating these in an end-to-end media forensics platform.

If successful, the MediFor platform will automatically detect manipulations, provide detailed information about how these manipulations were performed, and reason about the overall integrity of visual media to facilitate decisions regarding the use of any questionable image or video.”

While video is a particularly alarming application, manipulation even poses a detection challenge for still images and DARPA is researching those challenges as well.

DARPA’s Media Forensics group, also known as MediFor, began soliciting applications in 2015, launched in 2016 and is funded through 2020. For the project, SRI International will work closely with researchers at the University of Amsterdam (see their paper “Spotting Audio-Visual Inconsistencies (SAVI) in Manipulated Video” for more details) and the Biometrics Security & Privacy group of the Idiap Research Institute in Switzerland. The research group is focusing on four techniques to identify the kind of audiovisual discrepancies present in a video that has been tampered with, including lip sync analysis, speaker inconsistency detection, scene inconsistency detection (room size and acoustics) and identifying frame drops or content insertions.

Research awarded through the program is showing promise. In an initial round of testing last June, researchers were able to identify “speaker inconsistencies and scene inconsistencies,” two markers of video that’s been tampered with, with 75% accuracy in a set of hundreds of test videos. In May 2018, the group will be conducting a similar test on a larger scale, honing its technique in order to examine a much larger sample of test videos.

While the project does have potential defense applications, the research team believes that the aims of the program will become “front-and-center” in the near future as regulators, the media and the public alike reckon with the even more insidious strain of fake news.

“We expect techniques for tampering with and generating whole synthetic videos to improve dramatically in the near term,” a representative of SRI International told TechCrunch.

“These techniques will make it possible for both hobbyists and hackers to generate very realistic-looking videos of people doing and saying things they never did.”



DARPA’s Launch Challenge offers $10M prize for short-notice, rapid-turnaround rocketry

03:16 | 19 April

Getting to space is already tough, but getting there on short notice and then doing it again a couple weeks later? That’s a big ask. Nevertheless, DARPA is asking it as part of its Launch Challenge, announced today at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado. Teams must take a payload to space with only days to prepare, then do it again soon after — if they want to win the $10M grand prize.

The idea is to nurture small space companies under what DARPA envisions as the future of launch conditions in both commercial and military situations. The ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances or fail gracefully if not will be critical in the launch ecosystem of the near future.

Here’s how it will go down. First, teams will have to pre-qualify to show they have the chops to execute this kind of task via a written explanation of their capabilities and the acquisition of a license to launch. Qualifying teams will be rewarded with $400,000 each.

Once a set of teams is established (applications close in December), DARPA will bide its time… and then spring the launches on them sometime in the second half of 2019.

How big is the payload? Does it need to be powered? Cooled? Does it need or provide data? All this will be a mystery until mere weeks before launch. For comparison, most launches are planned for years and only finalized months before the day. DARPA will, however, provide an “example orbit” earlier in 2019 so you have a general idea of what to expect.

Teams won’t even know where they’re launching from until just before. “Competitors should assume any current or future FAA-licensed spaceport may be used. Launch site services are planned to be austere — primarily a concrete pad with bolt-down fixtures and generator or shore power.” Basically, be ready to rough it.

Any team that successfully inserts the payload to the correct low-earth orbit will receive $2 million. But they won’t be able to rest on their laurels: the next launch, with similarly mysterious conditions, will take place within two weeks of the first.

Teams that get their second payload into orbit correctly qualify for the grand prize — they’ll be ranked by “mass, time, and accuracy.” First place takes home $10M, second place $9M, and third place $8M. Not bad.

More information will be available come May 23, when DARPA will host a meeting and Q&A. In the meantime, you can read the contest rules summary here (PDF), and if you happen to be a rocket scientist or the head of a commercial space outfit, you can register for the challenge here.



DARPA wants new ideas for autonomous drone swarms

20:18 | 1 April

The Defense Department’s research wing is serious about putting drones into action, not just one by one but in coordinated swarms. The Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics program is kicking off its second “sprint,” a period of solicitation and rapid prototyping of systems based around a central theme. This spring sprint is all about “autonomy.”

The idea is to collect lots of ideas on how new technology, be it sensors, software, or better propeller blades, can enhance the ability of drones to coordinate and operate as a collective.

Specifically, swarms of 50 will need to “isolate an urban objective” within half an hour or so by working together with each other and ground-based robot. That at least is the “operational backdrop” that should guide prospective entrants in their decision whether their tech is applicable.

So a swarm of drones that seed a field faster than a tractor, while practical for farmers, isn’t really something the Pentagon is interested in here. On the other hand, if you can sell that idea as a swarm of drones dropping autonomous sensors on an urban battlefield, they might take a shine to it.

But you could also simply demonstrate how using a compact ground-based lidar system could improve swarm coordination at low cost and without using visible light. Or maybe you’ve designed a midair charging system that lets a swarm perk up flagging units without human intervention.

Those are pretty good ideas, actually — maybe I’ll run them by the program manager, Timothy Chung, when he’s on stage at our Robotics event in Berkeley this May. Chung also oversees the Subterranean Challenge and plenty more at DARPA . He looks like he’s having a good time in the video explaining the ground rules of this new sprint:

You don’t have to actually have 50 drones to take part — there are simulators and other ways of demonstrating value. More information on the program and how to submit your work for consideration can be found at the FBO page.



Check out self-driving cars, DARPA and more at TC Sessions: Robotics May 11 at UC Berkeley

19:58 | 26 March

As we’re gearing up for May’s big show, the announcements are starting to come fast and furious. In the past two weeks, we’ve revealed that Andy Rubin, Marc Raibert, Melonee Wise, Robert Full and more will be joining us May 11 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

We’ll be unveiling the full schedule for the event in the coming days, but for now, we’ve got a couple of new names to share with you, showing the best and brightest from across a wide range of robotics categories, from self-driving cars, to DARPA, to human-robotic interaction.

Diving Deep with Driverless Cars

Chris Urmson has been deeply involved with autonomous vehicles for more than a decade. In 2007, his team at Carnegie Mellon won the 2007 DARPA Urban Grand Challenge for self-driving cars. Two years later, he joined Google/Alphabet’s self-driving car team, eventually taking over as project lead.

These days, Ursom is the CEO of Aurora Innovation, an autonomous car company he cofounded with Tesla alum Sterling Anderson. The Bay Area-based company has been building systems for Volkswagen and Hyundai, and announced a partnership with NVIDIA earlier this year. Ursom will be joining us to discuss the promises — and pitfalls — of autonomous vehicles.

DARPA’s Latest Challenge

Launching a robotics company is challenging — and expensive. Thankfully, DARPA has helped play a key role in helping a number of important robotics startups get off the ground. Much of that funding has come courtesy of various DARPA Challenges, like the Subterranean Challenge launched late last year.

DARPA Tactical Technology Office program manager Timothy Chung will be on-hand at the event to lead a session exploring the department’s latest challenge, which seeks to “rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments.”

Human and Robots: Can’t We Just Get Along?

As robots and humans increasingly share spaces and overlap in capability, ensuring safe and efficient interactions grows more important. What new technologies and methods will enable them, and what challenges lie ahead for human-robot relations?

We’ll be joined by some top researchers in the field, including Ayanna Howard of Georgia Tech and Leila Takayama of UC Santa Cruz to explore these challenges and more.

We Want to Hear From Your Robotics Company

It wouldn’t be a real TechCrunch event without a good, old-fashioned startup pitch. As we mentioned last time, we’re searching for four early-stage robotics startups to show off their goods for our panel of VCs and a crowd of students and roboticists. If your company has what it takes, you can apply here.

We’re also looking for companies to participate in demos and serve as subjects for some upcoming TechCrunch videos. If that sounds like a good fit, fill out this form here.

Early-bird tickets are on sale now. (Special 90 percent discount for students when you book here!)

If you’re interested in a sponsorship, contact us.



LiDAR autonomous sensor startup Ouster announces $27M Series A led by auto powerhouse Cox Enterprises

20:00 | 11 December

Angus Pacala has had a lifelong passion for autonomous cars going all the way back to high school. A little more than a decade ago, he followed the launch of the DARPA Grand Challenge, a Department of Defense competition that pitted research teams against each other over who could build the best autonomous car. Stanford won the challenge in 2005, which is “one of the reasons I went there,” Pacala said.

His freshman year, he met Mark Frichtl, who was similarly interested in autonomous cars. The two took classes and worked on problem sets together, eventually working with each other at Quanergy, which Pacala had co-founded. Now, they are putting their collective talents together in a new venture called Ouster to bring affordable LiDAR sensors to the world.

Ouster today announced a $27 million series A fundraise led by Cox Enterprises, whose Cox Automotive division owns and offers a variety of auto services including the well-known Kelley Blue Book and AutoTrader.com.

Few areas of research are as important to the viability of fully autonomous cars as sensors — the actual physical hardware which evaluates the space around a vehicle and provides the raw data for machine learning algorithms to control the car without a human driver.

While visible light cameras, radar, and infrared sensors have been used by various engineering teams to build a physical map around a vehicle, the key component for nearly all autonomous car platforms is LiDAR. As Devin described on TechCrunch in an overview earlier this year, the technology, which has been around for decades, has become one of the key linchpins to successfully building L4 and L5 fully-autonomous vehicles.

There is just one challenge: essentially only one company makes the technology for production scale — Velodyne, which is based in the Valley. The company announced just a few weeks ago that it is quadrupling production of its main LiDAR product due to demand from autonomous car manufacturers. However, the prices for many of its sensors remain out-of-reach for most consumer applications, with some of the company’s most advanced sensors costing tens of thousands of dollars.

For Pacala, that price barrier has been a major challenge and ultimately gets at the mission of Ouster. “Our long term vision is to push LiDAR from being a research product to being in every consumer automobile,“ he said.

Ouster hopes that its first product, a 64-channel LiDAR sensor called OS1, which will be priced at $12,000, is that solution. The company says that the product is dramatically lighter, smaller, and uses less power than other competitors. It’s also shipping now.

Improving the performance of the sensor while also lowering its sticker price wasn’t a simple challenge. Pacala emphasized that technology wasn’t the entire solution. “While we can talk about the nitty-gritty of technology, the other side is not just the fundamental technology, but the design for manufacturability that really makes this lower cost while maintaining the performance” of the sensor.

That’s one of the reasons why he chose the venture partners that he did. “This isn’t just a typical list of Sand Hill investors. There is a time and place for those sort of investors, but we saw an opportunity to expand our reach by having investors who are much more attuned to the auto industry,” Pacala said. “VCs that are located in Detroit and who talk to OEMs day in and day out” had more to offer the company at this stage.

Ouster is setting an aggressive timeline to scale out its manufacturing. It intends to ramp us production heavily in the new year, targeting a thousand units a month in January and getting to ten thousand units a month by the end of June.

Certainly speed is of the essence. Venture capitalists around the world have been heavily funding automotive sensing technology over the past two years, including large rounds into Valley-based Luminar, Israel-based Oryx Vision, and China-based Hesai. But Pacala is sanguine about the company’s chances. “We have delivered first and then talked second, which is why you haven’t heard anything about us until now.” He hopes the heavy emphasis on getting manufacturing right early on will give him a lead in the race for your automobile.

In addition to Cox Enterprises, Fontinalis, Amity Ventures, Constellation Technology Ventures, Tao Capital Partners, and Carthona Capital also participated in the fundraise.

Featured Image: Ouster



This tiny sensor could sleep for years between detection events

04:48 | 12 September

It’s easy enough to put an always-on camera somewhere it can live off solar power or the grid, but deep in nature, underground, or in other unusual circumstances every drop of power is precious. Luckily, a new type of sensor developed for DARPA uses none at all until the thing it’s built to detect happens to show up. That means it can sit for years without so much as a battery top-up.

The idea is that you could put a few of these things in, say, the miles of tunnels underneath a decommissioned nuclear power plant or a mining complex, but not have to wire them all for electricity. But as soon as something appears, it’s seen and transmitted immediately. The power requirements would have to be almost nil, of course, which is why DARPA called the program Near Zero Power RF and Sensor Operation.

A difficult proposition, but engineers at Northeastern University were up to the task. They call their work a “plasmonically-enhanced micromechanical photoswitch,” which pretty much sums it up. I could end the article right here. But for those of you who slept in class the day we covered that topic, I guess I can explain.

The sensor is built to detect infrared light waves, invisible to our eyes but still abundant from heat sources like people, cars, fires, and so on. But as long as none are present, it is completely powered off.

But when a ray does appear, it strikes a surface is covered in tiny patches that magnify its effect. Plasmons are a sort of special behavior of conducting material, which in this case respond to the IR waves by heating up.

Here you can see the actual gap that gets closed by the heating of the element (lower left).

“The energy from the IR source heats the sensing elements which, in turn, causes physical movement of key sensor components,” wrote DARPA’s program manager, Troy Olsson, in a blog post. “These motions result in the mechanical closing of otherwise open circuit elements, thereby leading to signals that the target IR signature has been detected.”

Think of it like a paddle in a well. It can sit there for years without doing a thing, but as soon as someone drops a pebble into the well, it hits the paddle, which spins and turns a crank, which pulls a string, which raises a flag at the well-owner’s house. Except, as Olsson further explains, it’s a little more sophisticated.

“The technology features multiple sensing elements—each tuned to absorb a specific IR wavelength,” he wrote. “Together, these combine into complex logic circuits capable of analyzing IR spectrums, which opens the way for these sensors to not only detect IR energy in the environment but to specify if that energy derives from a fire, vehicle, person or some other IR source.”

The “unlimited duration of operation for unattended sensors deployed to detect infrequent but time-critical events,” as the researchers describe it, could have plenty of applications beyond security, of course: imagine popping a few of these all over the forests to monitor the movements of herds, or in space to catch rare cosmic events.

The tech is described in a paper published today in Nature Nanotechnology.

Featured Image: DARPA / Northeastern University



DARPA project aims to make modular computers out of ‘chiplets’

17:35 | 26 August

The Defense Department’s research arm has officially kicked off its effort to create a modular computing framework, with pieces pulled from a mix-‘n-match set of “chiplets.” Producing something this weird will take a village, the agency suggested — in fact, “an enormous village rife with innovators.” DARPA did always have a way with words.

The program, first announced last year, is called Common Heterogeneous Integration and Intellectual Property Reuse Strategies, which they abbreviate to CHIPS. It’s been reaching out to universities, military-industrial contractors, and of course the semiconductor and chip biz to explore the possibility, and this week was the “proposers’ day,” when the agency and interested parties share details and expectations.

Basically the idea is to reduce certain functions to standard chiplet size and form factor, within reason, and create a system by which those chiplets can be organized into larger boards. Need a board that’s heavy on image processing and storage for a satellite or recon drone? Put a bunch of those pieces together. Want something more focused on low-latency signal processing and integrating input from multiple sensors? Forget the image stuff and snap in some other parts.

A slide deck presented at the event this week (PDF) has lots more details, though since the project is still in early stages it’s all still pretty speculative.

It’s unclear what size or form the chiplets would take — that’s up to the creators, the innovators in that enormous village, to decide. It could be macro-level swapping in, like popping in extra RAM or a PCI card. Or it could be baked in at the manufacturing level but still more flexible than existing custom chip systems.

Ideally, though, the resulting electronics would be smaller, more versatile, and cheaper to make and replace than current solutions — which wouldn’t be hard in some cases, with some military systems dating decades into the past.

DARPA was keen to emphasize that it doesn’t want anything remade from scratch, merely retooling things to create a more flexible infrastructure. The old paradigm of the do-it-all PC isn’t the best any more in many cases. That may, however, mean establishing new interfaces or standards.

“By bringing the best design capabilities, reconfigurable circuit fabrics, and accelerators from the commercial domain, we should be able to create defense systems just by adding smaller specialized chiplets,” summarized DARPA’s Bill Chappell, in the announcement post.

Dan Green, the program manager, had more winged words to utter for CHIPS:

“Now we are moving beyond pretty pictures and mere words, and we are rolling up our sleeves to do the hard work it will take to change the way we think about, design, and build our microelectronic systems.”

Featured Image: DARPA



DARPA awards $65 million to develop the perfect, tiny two-way brain-computer interface

02:31 | 11 July

With $65 million in new funding, DARPA seeks to develop neural implants that make it possible for the human brain to speak directly to computer interfaces. As part of its Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, the agency will fund five academic research groups and one small San Jose-based company to further its goals.

For a taste of what DARPA is interested in, the Brown team will work on creating an interface that would weave together a vast network of “neurograins” that could be worn as implants on top of or in the cerebral cortex. These sensors would be capable of real-time electrical communication with the goal of understanding how the brain processes and decodes spoken language — a brain process so complex and automatic that aspects of it still elude researchers.

Among the six recipients, four are interested in visual perception, with the remaining two examining auditory perception and speech. MIT Technology Review reports that Paradromics, the only company included in the funding news, will receive around $18 million. Similar to the Brown team, Paradromics will use the funding to develop a prosthetic capable of decoding and interpreting speech.

The recipients have a lofty list of goals to aspire to. Foremost is DARPA’s desire to develop “high resolution” neural implants that record signals from as many as one million neurons at once. On top of that, it requests that the device be capable of two-way communication — receiving signals as well as transmitting them back out. And it wants that capability in a package no larger than two nickels stacked on top of one another.

“By increasing the capacity of advanced neural interfaces to engage more than one million neurons in parallel, NESD aims to enable rich two-way communication with the brain at a scale that will help deepen our understanding of that organ’s underlying biology, complexity, and function,” founding NESD Program Manager Phillip Alvelda said in the announcement.

The full list of NESD grant recipients:

  • Paradromics, Inc. (Dr. Matthew Angle)
  • Brown University (Dr. Arto Nurmikko)
  • Columbia University (Dr. Ken Shepard)
  • Fondation Voir et Entendre (Dr. Jose-Alain Sahel and Dr. Serge Picaud)
  • John B. Pierce Laboratory (Dr. Vincent Pieribone)
  • University of California, Berkeley (Dr. Ehud Isacoff)

Over the course of the four-year program, the research teams will coordinate with the FDA on the long-term safety implications of installing DARPA’s dream implant in and on the human brain.

When cracked, the technology, most often called a brain-computer interface (BCI), will break open a world of possibilities. From rehabilitation from traumatic brain injuries to typing a WhatsApp message using just your thoughts, BCIs have the potential to revolutionize every aspect of modern technology. But even as the money flows in, the challenges of developing this kind of tech remain myriad: How will the hardware be small and noninvasive enough to be worn in everyday life? Considering the privacy nightmare of creating a direct link to the human brain, how will we secure them?

Crafting a viable brain-computer interface is a challenge that weaves together some of tech’s trickiest software problems with its most intractable hardware ones. And while DARPA certainly isn’t the only deep-pocketed entity interested in building the bridge to the near future of bi-directional brain implants, with its defense budget and academic connections, it’s definitely the bionic horse we’d bet on.


Featured Image: majcot/Shutterstock



Boeing will build DARPA’s XS-1 experimental spaceplane

22:00 | 24 May

You can hear the champagne corks popping here in Seattle as Boeing is awarded the contract to make DARPA’s cool experimental spaceplane. The company was competing with Northrup Grumman and Masten Space Systems to design the craft.

The XS-1, as it’s called, would allow for relatively cheap and simple trips to space for launching and testing satellites and all that sort of thing. The goal is to get costs down to as little as $5 million per launch all told, and be able to fly at least ten times a year.

It’s meant to be a fusion of all the high-tech stuff from NASA, the Air Force, and private sector aerospace, like lightweight cryogenic propellant tanks and super strong and durable composite wings that can handle re-entry temperatures. It should be able to go at speeds up to Mach 10, and deliver payloads weighing up to 3,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit.

As is the usual case for these multi-million-dollar super high-tech programs, there’s a demonstration video that looks like it was put together by a middle-schooler in 2005:

“We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3—fabrication and flight,” said DARPA program manager Jess Sponable in a news release.

This second phase of the design process goes through 2019, during which time the design will be finalized and the propulsion system (a modified Space Shuttle engine) tested thoroughly. After that, a dozen flight tests are scheduled for 2020. The final trial will be to fly 10 times over 10 days going at least Mach 5.

You can follow the project’s updates and view more details on the testing and capabilities over at DARPA’s website.


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