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Main article: DARPA

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U.S. Air Force experimental test spaceship lands after a record 780 days in orbit

15:40 | 28 October

The X-37B, a test vehicle operated by the U.S. Air Force, has returned from orbit and landed successfully at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, over two years after it originally launched on its latest mission aboard a SpaceX rocket.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, as its formally known, was on its fifth mission, which involved – well, we don’t really know. The whole point of X-37B is that its mission is mostly clandestine, so we likely won’t ever know the full particulars of what its been up to in its orbital jaunts. But we do know that it’s demonstrating technologies for USAF use, and specifically to help them develop a “reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform.”

We know from the Air Fore that that means running a battery of test across systems including avionics, guidance, thermal shielding, propulsion, spacecraft re-entry systems and more. We also know that it’s around 30-feet long, like a kind of shrunk-down Space Shuttle, and we know that it’s built by Air Force contractor Boeing. And since this is the Air Force we’re talking about, we also know that the goals of any experiments run in the spaceplane are likely going to ramp up to defence and military use, which is a logical thing for the U.S. to pursue, given how quickly space is becoming a relative boom town, and how much money other states are spending on in-space defence and militarization.

The X-37B will spend some time on the ground after its record-breaking 780-day flight, and then will launch again sometime in 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.



DARPA aims to make networks 100 times speedier with FastNIC

03:38 | 27 September

Having a slow connection is always frustrating, but just imagine how supercomputers feel. All those cores doing all kinds of processing at lightning speed, but in the end they’re all waiting on an outdated network interface to stay in sync. DARPA doesn’t like it. So DARPA wants to change it — specifically by making a new network interface a hundred times faster.

The problem is this. As DARPA estimates it, processors and memory on a computer or server can in a general sense work at a speed of roughly 10^14 bits per second — that’s comfortably into the terabit region — and networking hardware like switches and fiber are capable of about the same.

“The true bottleneck for processor throughput is the network interface used to connect a machine to an external network, such as an Ethernet, therefore severely limiting a processor’s data ingest capability,” explained DARPA’s Jonathan Smith in a news post by the agency about the project. (Emphasis mine.)

That network interface usually takes the form of a card (making it a NIC) and handles accepting data from the network and passing it on to the computer’s own systems, or vice versa. Unfortunately its performance is typically more in the gigabit range.

That delta between the NIC and the other components of the network means a fundamental limit in how quickly information can be shared between different computing units — like the hundreds or thousands of servers and GPUs that make up supercomputers and datacenters. The faster one unit can share its information with another, the faster they can move on to the next task.

Think of it like this: You run an apple farm, and every apple needs to be inspected and polished. You’ve got people inspecting apples and people polishing apples, and both can do 14 apples a minute. But the conveyor belts between the departments only carry 10 apples per minute. You can see how things would pile up, and how frustrating it would be for everyone involved!

With the FastNIC program, DARPA wants to “reinvent the network stack” and improve throughput by a factor of 100. After all, if they can crack this problem, their supercomputers will be at an immense advantage over others in the world, in particular those in China, which has vied with the U.S. in the high performance computing arena for years. But it’s not going to be easy.

“There is a lot of expense and complexity involved in building a network stack,” said Smith, the first of which will be physically redesigning the interface. “It starts with the hardware; if you cannot get that right, you are stuck. Software can’t make things faster than the physical layer will allow so we have to first change the physical layer.”

The other main part will, naturally, be redoing the software side to deal with the immense increase in the scale of the data the interface will have to handle. Even a 2x or 4x change would necessitate systematic improvements; 100x will involve pretty much a ground-up redo of the system.

The agency’s researchers — bolstered, of course, by any private industry folks who want to chip in, so to speak — aim to demonstrate a 10 terabit connection, though there’s no timeline just yet. But the good news for now is that all the software libraries created by FastNIC will be open source, so this standard won’t be limited to the Defense Department’s proprietary systems.

FastNIC is only just getting started, so forget about it for now and we’ll let you know when DARPA cracks the code in a year or three.



Experimental U.S. Air Force space plane breaks previous record for orbital spaceflight

17:32 | 26 August

The Boeing-built X-37B space plane commissioned and operated by the U.S. Air Force has now broken its own record for time spent in space. Its latest mission has lasted 719 days as of today, which is one day longer than its last mission which ended in 2017, as noted by It’s not an overall record, since geocommunications satellites typically have life spans of five years or more, but it’s nonetheless an impressive milestone for this secretive Air Force vehicle, which is all about testing and developing U.S. technologies related to reusable spaceflight and more.

The X-37B began its current mission in September 2018, when it launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The specific details of the spacecraft’s missions are classified, but in addition to apparently spending ever increasing amounts of time up in space (each successive mission of the space plane has lasted longer), it’s also “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” These tests involve tech related to guidance, navigation, thermal protection, high-temperature materials and durability, flight and propulsion systems and more, which is basically not saying much since that’s just everything involved in space flight.

There’s no crew on board operating X-37-B, but the vehicle can autonomously descend back through Earth’s atmosphere and land horizontally on a runway, just like the NASA Space Shuttle used to do when it was in operation.

The X-37 program got kicked off in 1997, originally began by NASA, and it was then transferred to DARPA and the U.S. Air Force after that. The X-37B has flown four times, and in total, the first four missions added up to 2,085 days spent in space.



This new autonomous startup has designed its delivery robot to conquer winter

22:54 | 11 July

Refraction, a new autonomous delivery robot company that came out of stealth Wednesday at TC Sessions: Mobility, sees opportunity where most AV startups are avoiding: regions with the worst weather.

The company, founded by University of Michigan professors Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Ram Vasudevan, calls its REV-1 delivery robot the “Goldilocks of autonomous vehicles.”

The pair have a long history with autonomous vehicles. Johnson-Roberson got his start by participating in the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004 and stayed in academia researching and then teaching robotics. Vasudevan’s career had a stint at Ford working on control algorithms for autonomous operations on snow and ice. Both work together at University of Michigan’s Robotics Program.

The REV-1 is lightweight and low cost — there are no expensive lidar sensors on the vehicle — it operates in a bike lane and is designed to travel in rain or snow, Johnson-Roberson, cofounder and CEO of Refraction told TechCrunch.

The robot, which debuted on stage at the California Theater in San Jose during the event, is about the size of an electric bicycle. The REV-1 weighs about 100 pounds and stands about 5 feet tall and is 4.5 feet long. Inside the robot is 16 cubic feet of space, enough room to fit four or five grocery bags.

It’s not particularly fast — top speed is 15 miles per hour. But since it’s designed for a bike lane, it doesn’t need to be. That slower speed and lightweight design allows the vehicle to have a short stopping distance of about five feet.

Refraction has backing from eLab Ventures and Trucks Venture Capital.

Consumers have an appetite and an expectation for on-demand goods that are delivered quickly. But companies are struggling to find consistent, reliable and economical ways to address that need, said Bob Stefanski, managing director of eLab Ventures.

Stefanksi believes Refraction’s sturdy, smaller-sized delivery robots will allow for faster technology development and will be able to cover a larger service area than competitors operating on the sidewalk.

“Their vehicles are also light-weight enough to deploy more safely than a self-driving car or large robot,” Stefanski noted. “The market is huge, especially in densely populated areas.”

The REV-1 uses a system of 12 cameras as its primary sensor system, along with radar and ultrasound sensors for additional safety.

“It doesn’t make sense economically speaking to use a $10,000 lidar to delivery $10 of food,” Johnson-Roberson said. By skipping the more expensive lidar sensor, they’re able to keep the total cost of the vehicle to $5,000.

The company’s first test application is with local restaurant partners. The company hopes to lock in bigger national partnerships in the next six months. But don’t expect those to be in the southwest or California, where so many other autonomous vehicle companies are testing.

“Other companies are not trying to run in the winter here,” Johnson-Roberson said. “It’s a different problem than the one that others are trying to solve, so we hope that gives us some space to breathe and some chance to carve out some opportunity.”



Vector, Virgin and a mystery team will compete in DARPA’s $34M launch challenge

02:15 | 11 April

DARPA wants to be able to launch anywhere, any time, and several times in a row. Is that too much to ask? Not for Vector Space, Virgin Orbit, and an unnamed startup that just qualified to take place in the agency’s Launch Challenge, which will push their responsive and mobile launch capabilities to the limit.

In the challenge, the teams will be notified that they need to launch a payload to orbit from a given location only days beforehand. After doing so, they will then be told a second location from which they must launch again just days later. The winning team will receive up to $12M, with $11M and $10M available to the runners up, depending on how they perform.

Speaking at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, DARPA program manager Todd Master announced the three companies that would be taking part in the competition, which the agency announced around this time last year. Interestingly, none of them has yet put a payload into orbit.

Map of the US showing launch locations for the challenge.

These are the potential locations for launches.

Vector Space recently raised $70M to pursue the first orbital launch of its Vector-R rocket and get manufacturing started at its Tucson facility. Its goal, to provide short-turnaround micro-launch services at a cadence measured in weeks.

Virgin Orbit — technically VOX Space — has a 747-based first stage that takes the two-stage rocket up to launch altitude, an assisted-launch strategy that has worked well for small payloads in the past. It may also be a uniquely good fit for this particular challenge, given that mobility of the rocket and payload are inherent to the aircraft first stage style.

The last company has requested anonymity for now, as it is still operating in stealth mode. I thought at first it might actually be Stealth, which is in fact a launch startup currently in stealth mode, but it could just as easily be one of the unknown number of companies quietly working on launch tech.

Each company received $400,000 for qualifying and making sure they’re legal (each needs FAA permission, among other things). The launches will take place sometime in 2020; A prize of $2M is available to each team that gets the first payload into the air, then $10M, $9M, and $8M prizes are available for completing the second task. They’ll be judged on a variety of metrics.

All told that’s somewhere around $34,000,000 up for grabs. Of course, it will probably cost more than that to accomplish what DARPA asks. But that’s kind of how these competitions work.

We’ll know more when DARPA gives us more. Obviously we won’t know the dates of the launch until they are announced, but it’ll be some time before that happens (these companies need to finish their launch vehicles) so you can relax for now. Unless you work at one of the participating teams, in which case get cracking.



CMU team develops a robot and drone system for mine rescues

23:41 | 30 March

On our final day in Pittsburgh, we find ourself in a decommissioned coal mine. Just northeast of the city proper, Tour-Ed’s owners run field trips and tours during the warmer months, despite the fact that the mine’s innards run a constant 50 degrees or so, year round.

With snow still melted just beyond the entrance, a team of students from Carnegie Mellon and Oregon State University are getting a pair of robots ready for an upcoming competition. The small team is one of a dozen or so currently competing in DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge.

The multi-year SUbT competition is designed to “explore new approaches to rapidly map, navigate, search, and exploit complex underground environments, including human-made tunnel systems, urban underground, and natural cave networks.” In particular, teams are tasked with search and rescue missions in underground structures, ranging from mines to caves to subway stations.

The goal of the $2 million challenge is design a system capable of navigating complex underground terrains, in case of cave-ins or other disasters. The robots are created to go where human rescuers can’t — or, at very least, shouldn’t.

The CMU team’s solution features multiple robots, with a foul-wheeled rover and a small, hobbyist style drone taking center state. “Our system consists of ground robots that will be able to track and follow the terrain,” says CMU’s Steve Willits, who serves as an adviser on the project. “We also have an unmanned aerial vehicle consisting of a hexacopter. It’s equipped with all of instrumentation that it will need to explore various area of the mine.”

The rover uses a combination of 3D cameras and LIDAR to navigate and map the environment, while looking for humans amid the rubble. Should it find itself unable to move, due to debris, small passage ways or a manmade obstacle like stairs, the drone is designed to lift off from the rear and continue the search.

All the while, the rover drops ultra rugged WIFI repeaters off its rear like a breadcrumb trail, extending its signal in the process. Most of this is still early stages. While the team was able to demonstrate the rover and drone in action, it still hasn’t mastered a method for getting them to work in tandem.

Testing the robots will begin in September, with the Tunnel Circuit That’s followed in March 2020 by the manmade Urban Circuit and then a Cave Circuit that September. A final event will be held in September 2012.



Watch Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2019 lift a DARPA experiment into orbit

01:50 | 29 March

Rocket Lab, the Kiwi operation working on breaking into the launch industry with small but frequent launches, has its first launch of the year today, due to take off in just a few minutes. Tune in below!

The company recently, after the numerous delays endemic to the launch industry, made its first real commercial launches, which spurred a $140 million investment. It is now working on increasing launch cadence and building enough rockets to do so.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck was on stage at Disrupt SF not long ago talking about the new space economy. I thought it was a great discussion. (But then, I was the moderator, so how could it not be?)

The client for today’s launch is DARPA, which has opted to use smaller launch providers for a series of experiments and deployments. Onboard the Electron rocket today is the “RF Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration, or R3D2. It’s an experimental antenna made of “a tissue-thin Kapton membrane” that will deploy from its small package to a full 7 feet across once in orbit.

The earliest opportunities for the launch were well over a week ago, but in this business, delays are expected. But all the little warning lights are off and the weather is fine, so we should be seeing R3D2 heading skyward in a few minutes.

You can watch the whole thing live below. I’ll update the post if there are any major updates.



Seraphim attracts the UK’s Ministry of Defence to its SpaceTech accelerator

17:26 | 4 March

In the US the links between private sector technology and the defense industry are long and well known. And in the realm of startups, DARPA, has long fostered new technologies such as those around drones.

But despite the world-class defense sector in the UK, historically speaking, it has not reached out quite so overtly to startups. That is beginning to change with the announcement today of a brand new link between the pioneering UK space accelerator Seraphim Space Camp accelerator and the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory. Dstl will now become the newest corporate partner to support the programme in 2019, joining joins others including: Rolls Royce, Inmarsat, Airbus and the European Space Agency.

In summer last year Seraphim unveiled its first 6 startups.

Through its sponsorship, Dstl will be able to engage with Seraphim’s pipeline of emerging technologies to address upcoming defense and security challenges facing, as well as develop proof-of-concepts and pilots to work out whether these technologies could have real applications within the agency.

Michael O’Callaghan, Space Programme Manager at Dstl told us this was a new move for the agency working in this way with a private sector tech accelerator: “From advanced space technologies, through to state-of-the-art earth observation start-ups; Seraphim Space Camp’s deal-flow of companies has huge applications within the defense and security Sector”.
Dstl is an Executive Agency of the MOD, run along commercial lines and is one of the principal government organizations dedicated to space and tech in the defense and security field, with six sites, including the famous Porton Down, near Salisbury.

Rob Desborough, Seraphim Capital Investment Director and Director of Seraphim Space Camp commented: “Bringing on the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is a big deal for us. Not only are our visions very much aligned but I believe the start-ups on our programme will really benefit from having such a big player in the UK’s defence and Space Sector so closely involved; and will be a great addition to the high pedigree of corporate partners we’ve been lucky enough to have on board so far.”



DARPA wants smart bandages for wounded warriors

22:06 | 12 February

Nowhere is prompt and effective medical treatment more important than on the battlefield, where injuries are severe and conditions dangerous. DARPA thinks that outcomes can be improved by the use of intelligent bandages and other systems that predict and automatically react to the patient’s needs.

Ordinary cuts and scrapes just need a bit of shelter and time and your amazing immune system takes care of things. But soldiers not only receive far graver wounds, but under complex conditions that are not just a barrier to healing but unpredictably so.

DARPA’s Bioelectronics for Tissue Regeneration program, or BETR, will help fund new treatments and devices that “closely track the progress of the wound and then stimulate healing processes in real time to optimize tissue repair and regeneration.”

“Wounds are living environments and the conditions change quickly as cells and tissues communicate and attempt to repair,” said Paul Sheehan, BETR program manager, in a DARPA news release. “An ideal treatment would sense, process, and respond to these changes in the wound state and intervene to correct and speed recovery. For example, we anticipate interventions that modulate immune response, recruit necessary cell types to the wound, or direct how stem cells differentiate to expedite healing.”

It’s not hard to imagine what these interventions might comprise. Smart watches are capable of monitoring several vital signs already, and in fact have alerted users to such things as heart rate irregularities. A smart bandage would use any signal it can collect — “optical, biochemical, bioelectronic, or mechanical” — to monitor the patient and either recommend or automatically adjust treatment.

A simple example might be a wound that the bandage detects from certain chemical signals is becoming infected with a given kind of bacteria. It can then administer the correct antibiotic in the correct dose and stop when necessary rather than wait for a prescription. Or if the bandage detects shearing force and then an increase in heart rate, it’s likely the patient has been moved and is in pain — out come the painkillers. Of course all this information would be relayed to the caregiver.

This system may require some degree of artificial intelligence, although of course it would have to be pretty limited. But biological signals can be noisy and machine learning is a powerful tool for sorting through that kind of data.

BETR is a four-year program, during which DARPA hopes that it can spur innovation in the space and create a “closed-loop, adaptive system” that improves outcomes significantly. There’s a further ask to have a system that addresses osseointegration surgery for prosthetics fitting — a sad necessity for many serious injuries incurred during combat.

One hopes that the technology will trickle down, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s all largely theoretical for now, though it seems more than possible that the pieces could come together well ahead of the deadline.



Rocket Lab snags DARPA launch contract for first 2019 mission

02:41 | 23 January

Launch startup Rocket Lab is following the success of its first couple commercial launches by adding a prestigious (and deep-pocketed) new client: DARPA. The New Zealand-based company will send an experimental satellite called R3D2 into low Earth orbit sometime in late February if all goes well.

DARPA is of course the Defense Department’s research wing, and it probably has whole file folders filled with experiments it would like to send up to orbit but has deferred from because of cost or timing restrictions. Rocket Lab’s whole business model is to make launches cheap and frequent so neither of those apply, and DARPA seems willing to give it a shot.

“The Department of Defense has prioritized rapid acquisition of small satellite and launch capabilities. By relying on commercial acquisition practices, DARPA streamlined the R3D2 mission from conception through launch services acquisition,” explained DARPA’s Fred Kennedy, director of the Tactical Technology Office, in a news release.

“The ability to rapidly space-qualify new technology and deploy space-based assets with confidence on short notice is a service that didn’t exist for dedicated small satellites until now,” said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck in his company’s corresponding release.

Apparently it’s nicknamed “Wallaby,” perhaps because it keeps things in a pouch.

The satellite itself is actually more of a short term science experiment. It’s a “membrane antenna,” a thin layer of Kapton folded up into a tiny space that, upon reaching orbit, will unfurl to its full 7-foot diameter. The larger surface area may make for better signal reception and transmission, and packing into a smaller area of course makes more room for other components. (R3D2 stands for Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration, by the way.)

The whole thing weighs 150 kilograms, or about 330 pounds; that doesn’t leave a lot of space for ride sharing, so DARPA is paying for the whole Electron rocket. The plan is to launch in late February from Rocket Lab’s facility in New Zealand on the Māhia Peninsula. The exact date will only become clear once weather and other variables for that period are determined.

Fingers crossed for Rocket Lab on this one. It’s already done launches for private companies and for NASA; adding DARPA to the rolodex would be a big coup for a company looking to build up its profile.


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