Bullets that never miss, super soldiers with extreme strength and robot warriors capable of rising up against humans may sound like the stuff of science fiction… but the truth is that they have all already been developed.
A top-secret US government body called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is behind these space-age innovations, which it has developed as part of its mission to revolutionize the way America fights the wars of the future. (Just think of Q’s lab in James Bond, but for the US army).
Ever since it was established in 1958, DARPA has been the subject of conspiracy theories claiming - among other things - that the agency was covering up UFO landings, trying to develop mind control and working on Earth-shattering super-weapons like death rays.
However, as far-fetched as these claims may be, the truth is that DARPA has already developed new technologies which are just as fantastical and which are just as likely to change the world – perhaps beyond recognition.
Meanwhile, the quest to give the US military an unbeatable edge has also led to DARPA developing a number of practical technologies which we now use every day: GPS, Google Maps and even the internet all have their origins in DARPA’s secretive labs.
But with DARPA’s current controversial projects including unchecked AI software and the potential for weaponized insects, there’s no doubt that these innovations of the future can be just as influential.
Sniper bullets which hone in on targets
Imagine the incredible potential of a sniper bullet that changes its trajectory after it’s been fired, guaranteeing that the shooter never misses.
EXACTO, or Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance bullets does exactly this, turning huge .50 caliber bullets into guided rounds capable of zeroing in on a target.
The idea is that this can nullify inaccuracies caused by bad weather, wind, extreme distances or human error.
Although DARPA is keeping quiet on how it does this, other sites report that the technology involves optical sensors in the nose of the bullet and fins capable of adjusting the bullet’s flight path in the tail.
The bullet is even capable of making some remarkably sharp course corrections.
DARPA claims that the system is so easy to use that, during testing, a novice shooter using the system for the first time was able to squarely hit a moving target.
Making superhuman soldiers
Coming soon to a battlefield near you: DARPA has developed an incredible exoskeleton - a wearable mobile machine - which transforms any infantryman into a super soldier.
Made with help from researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, DARPA’s Soft Exosuit is a lightweight skeleton frame which saves soldiers’ energy when going about their battlefield business.
The sci-fi exoskeleton can augment its wearer’s strength and endurance by assisting with movements and taking on some of the physical burdens of walking over long distances and carrying heavy objects, using in-built sensors and a micro-computer to intelligently match the requirements of its user.
A new study, where the suit was tested by seven soldiers on a 12-mile cross-country hike in Maryland, showed it reduced energy consumption by around 15 percent, making troops more efficient and able to cover more ground.
Terminator robots which could destroy humanity
One of DARPA’s big interests is the baffling world of artificial intelligence – smart computers which are capable of thinking in a similar way to humans.
Dr. Steven Walker, the director at the head of the controversial agency, is currently funneling a $2 billion (£1.55bn) investment into exploring how machines can be taught to communicate and reason in the same way we do.
The aim is to create lightning-fast military computers which can adapt to new situations, analyze battlefield data and ultimately advise soldiers and planners in the heat of a conflict, where every second counts.
However, AI has its critics, who warn that turning over the work of military analysis to machines creates the risk of a Skynet-style computer which could turn its considerable knowledge and power against humanity.
AI expert Professor Michael Horowitz, from the University of Pennsylvania, has said in interviews: “There’s a lot of concern about AI safety – [about] algorithms that are unable to adapt to complex reality and thus malfunction in unpredictable ways.
“It’s one thing if what you’re talking about is a Google search, but it’s another thing if what you’re talking about is a weapons system.”
Fake limbs controlled by the brain and super-people
Other DARPA research projects include the creation of prosthetic limbs with the full range of movement of the real thing.
Geoff Ling, a neurology ICU physician, has even developed a mind-controlled prosthetic arm which the wearer controls with their thoughts.
Other incredible prosthetic limbs created by the research agency can offer a range of natural movements which the wearer controls via sensors placed elsewhere on their body.
However, conspiracy theorists claim that this is just cover for plans to develop better and more sophisticated fake limbs which can eventually be fitted to robot soldiers and other war machines.
This is something which Ling has publicly denied, stating that the US government has put limits on DARPA’s powers to develop killer robots or a “super-person.”
Turning insects into weapons
One of DARPA’s most controversial recent projects, Insect Allies, is designed to stop insects from being pests and harness their powers for good.
The idea is that leafhoppers, white flies and aphids can be used to protect the nation's food supply in the face of threats caused by drought, crop disease and bio-terrorism.
DARPA aims to achieve this by deliberately infecting insects with engineered viruses and mutations which can then be passed on to plants to make them hardier or resistant to biological attacks.
However, to some people the idea of using insects as farming tools isn’t as innocent as it sounds.
Blake Bextine, who runs the project, acknowledged that Insect Allies involves new technologies that potentially could be used, in theory, as a novel weapon (in this case, using infected insects to cripple a rival’s crop supply).
But the program manager told the Washington Post that almost all new technologies are capable of being weaponized. “I don’t think that the public needs to be worried,” he added. “I don’t think that the international community needs to be worried.”
Human experiments to create better brains
Some of DARPA’s most incredible military research centers on the deadliest of weapons: the human mind.
Under Justin Sanchez, head of the Biological Technologies Office at DARPA, the organization has funded human experiments at Wake Forest, the University of Southern California, and the University of Pennsylvania, with the aim of giving individuals a memory “boost.”
Researchers implanted electrodes into one person’s brain to record mental activity associated with recognizing patterns and memorizing word lists.
Then they reinforced that person’s memory by playing back the recorded brain activity through the circuits, significantly improving their memory.
However, many people have questioned these findings, including former DARPA program manager Doug Weber.
He explained to The Atlantic that when scientists put electrodes in the brain, those devices eventually fail—after a few months or a few years, mainly because of blood leakage.
Seafaring drones to clear minefields
Many of DARPA’s innovations take existing technologies and apply them in a practical military setting, and their Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel is no different.
This long-winded name refers to the agency’s 140-ton drone boat which cruises the oceans tracking enemy submarines and detecting mines.
The unmanned minesweeper can continuously operate for 60-90 days with no human intervention necessary, and has already been successfully trialed at sea.
The phantom space plane
The Phantom Express – or XS-1 – is a next-generation spacecraft which will allow secret missions to the final frontier to be launched on a daily basis.
Set to take off for the first time in 2020, the mysterious plane is thought to be powered only by electricity, and is expected to have the ability to land and take off vertically.
It will take off like a rocket, boost itself beyond the atmosphere and release an expendable second-stage rocket and satellite before turning around and landing like an airplane on a runway.
DARPA spokesman Jared Adams said the goal of the XS-1 program is to fly 10 flights within ten days.
Preventing nuclear threats on American streets
DARPA’s SIGMA program was developed with the goal of minimizing casualties in the event of a worst-case scenario: a nuclear or radiological attack against the United States.
In 2017, DARPA put its cutting-edge vehicle-mounted radiation detectors to the test in Washington, D.C by fitting them to the city’s fleet of emergency service vehicles.
This turned every ambulance, fire engine and police car in the city into mobile nuke sniffers, providing the first ever city-scale map of background radiation levels throughout the US capital as well as identifying any unusual spikes that could indicate a threat.
With the ever-present threat of war weighing heavy over American military planners, more tests are planned in the coming year... and there's no knowing what other incredible projects DARPA has in the pipeline.
This story originally appeared in The Sun.