DARPA wants your weapon ideas, offers cash prizes

If the zombie apocalypse hits, are you the person in your neighborhood who can turn everyday objects into a weapon? If so, then your country needs you.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is inviting you to demonstrate your MacGyver skills and use them to help keep your fellow Americans safe. And you have five days left to propose your innovation.

The agency will be awarding hefty cash prizes to patriotic Americans who can turn everyday items, like consumer electronics and model airplanes, into weapons and bombs. The key is to identify off-the-shelf products that could be adapted by bad guys to pose a threat to Americans. All together, a successful innovator could win up to about $130,000 for his or her skills.

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The foundation for this challenge is improvisation – hence the program’s name: “Improv.” This is your chance to help give the US military the element of surprise.

For those who are handy around the house and love to invent new things, then you could help our nation expect the unexpected. The first deadline is Wednesday 4 pm ET.

DARPA is also reaching out to a wide range of experts, like engineers and biologists, to provide suggestions.

What type of tech?

Any type of commercially available product that could be weaponized is fair game.

Commercial drones have been in the news a lot as potential threats. In January last year, a quadcopter even crashed on the South Lawn of the White House.

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But threats could arise from any commercially available tech in determined hands.

Cell phones and model airplanes are frequently flagged as potential threats. Other objects could also be weaponized, such as skydiving and scuba-diving equipment and even toys modified with parts from a coffee maker and hair dryer.

“DARPA’s mission is to create strategic surprise, and the agency primarily does so by pursuing radically innovative and even seemingly impossible technologies,” the DARPA program manager, John Main, said in the program announcement. “Improv is being launched in recognition that strategic surprise can also come from more familiar technologies, adapted and applied in novel ways.”

The threat

So why is DARPA throwing down the improvised weapon gauntlet?

Successful projects could yield new tech for the US military to use against adversaries.

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This is your chance to join what DARPA is calling the world’s largest red team, and help play a role in national security. Red teams adopt an adversary’s perspective and challenge conventional wisdom and strategy. A red team member helps find vulnerabilities and anticipate threats.

Terrorist attacks in the past have concealed weapons in a range of ordinary objects. The 2006 liquid bomb plot disguised bomb ingredients as ordinary liquids. In 2010, the humble printer cartridge was used to conceal explosives. Terrorist Richard Reid, the infamous shoe bomber, hid his device in his sneaker. Improvised explosive devices are concealed in a limitless range of ordinary looking objects.

What kind of prizes?

In each phase of the program, multiple awards will be winnable.

The awards are expected to be up to $40,000 per individual in the first phase. For the second phase, the prize could be up to about $70,000 per individual. The final prototype phase could be up to $20,000 per individual award.

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DARPA is moving fast on this program, to see what could be made on a tight budget in a brief set time. The competition was announced March 11, 2016 and competitors must submit their ideas by next Wednesday, April 13, 2016, 4:00 p.m ET.

Ideas are to be submitted in the form of an abstract -- more info here.

Those selected will then need to submit their full proposals by May 25, 2016, 4:00 p.m. EST.