WASHINGTON – The soldier of the future may be able to go long periods of time without sleep and food, and may even be able to heal faster.
Fighters could also soon gain perspective from an unmanned aircraft that they carry in their gear and then release on the battlefield.
Those are just two of the research projects scientists are working on at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (search), the same outfit that developed stealth technology, the M-16, and the Internet.
But DARPA is not universally praised and has recently come under rapid fire. This summer, Congress refused to allow funding for the Pentagon agency's Terrorist Information Awareness (search) — formerly the Total Information Awareness — program after learning that the project would provide technology to scan public and private databases filled with information about ordinary Americans.
Lawmakers also went ballistic when they heard DARPA was working on a futures market that would allow investors to predict the likelihood of a terrorist act.
It "is not a project that warrants any credibility at all. It is a tragic waste of the taxpayers' money. It is offensive and, in my judgment, it will have no value to anyone," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said at the time, joining a chorus of criticism.
DARPA officials defended the program, saying it was designed to harness market forces to aid in intelligence. Nonetheless, the back-to-back negative publicity led to the resignation of Iran-contra figure and retired Adm. John M. Poindexter (search), leader of the Total Information Awareness Unit that thought up the projects.
"I think that obviously [the terrorism futures market] was a public relations disaster. If they were going to do it they should have briefed Congress ahead of time," said Lawrence J. Korb, director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (search) and former assistant secretary of defense.
Despite the dark summer, Korb told Foxnews.com that DARPA has a reputation as an innovative, risk-taking organization that comes up with inventions that others would not invest the time or money to find.
"Without DARPA, it’s hard to make the advances that you should because the services don’t want to put money in things that they don't know will have an immediate impact," he said.
DARPA was founded in 1958 after the Soviet Union surprised the United States by launching the first satellite into space. DARPA’s mission is to make sure that no one ever beats the U.S. military to the punch again.
One of DARPA's primary focuses is the next generation of unmanned systems that would carry and deliver munitions as well as serve a widely expanded surveillance role.
Generally, unmanned aircraft — a top priority at the Defense Department — now enter the battlefield before the fight has begun. In the future, the fleet of unmanned and manned systems will operate simultaneously.
DARPA is working on new unmanned systems that will be smaller and use flapping wings, similar to a bird, rather than the fixed wings employed now.
Ground units in the field might have several unmanned aircraft with wingspans of 29 inches, and individual soldiers might have "backpackable" aircraft with wingspans of just 10 inches that could enable a soldier to see over the next hill or around a corner.
In the future a soldier could point to a place on a map and the aircraft would take off vertically and find a place to land where it would then report back to the soldier, DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker said.
The unmanned technology, which requires some creative thinking, would provide much more flexibility on the battlefield.
"If there's no man in it, there's no reason it couldn’t operate upside down as well as right side up," Walker said.
DARPA also is working on robot technology that uses birds as models, and is studying how to apply the method used by geckoes to climb walls.
"If we could engineer that into a small robot that would be very useful in urban warfare," Walker said.
Another project that takes its cue from animals is a fatigue prevention program that allows soldiers to operate effectively for seven days without sleep. To keep soldiers in action, DARPA is also developing pain management techniques that do not incapacitate soldiers the way that drugs like morphine do.
Senators who went after DARPA this summer over TIA and the futures market have vowed to scrutinize the agency's projects more closely, and could stand as barriers in the agency's quest for funding. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., all have indicated they are keeping an eye on the agency's data-mining and data-tracking software.
But Korb said he did not think DARPA would have difficulty obtaining the funding it needs because of its comparatively small budget. The overall defense spending bill under consideration for next fiscal year is nearly $370 billion.
DARPA has requested $3 billion in funding for fiscal year 2004, up from $2.7 billion last year. Both the Senate and the House have agreed to fund the agency, but the House bill for the new fiscal year that starts on Oct. 1 provides about $100 million more than the Senate version.
The House version also gives $20 million to fund the TIA program. Wyden has vowed to fight to keep TIA defunded.
The bill is now in conference. No date has yet been set for House and Senate negotiators to meet to work out differences, but they could get together on short notice.
Walker said that she hopes recent controversies will not damage DARPA's ability to innovate.
"Our mission is to think out of the box and bring that mindset to the military. ... It’s crucial that we be able to do things that at first blush may seem a little crazy."