MIGHTY TACTICAL

6 "creepy" DARPA projects that will save lives

People love to fear DARPA's "mad science" laboratory and all of its projects, creepy and otherwise. But DARPA's creepiest projects are also the ones with some of the greatest potential to save our lives.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is known for both world-changing programs, like the internet, and creepy ones, like synthetic blood. Although it draws flack for creating multiple types of terminators, the Department of Defense's "mad scientist" laboratory is still cranking out insane inventions that will save the lives of war fighters and civilians.

Here are six of them:


1.Synthetic blood

A British poster advocating blood donation.

(Imperial War Museums)

We figured that intro may make some people curious, so we'll talk about synthetic blood right up top. DARPA pushed the project in 2008 and the first batch of blood went to the FDA in 2010. Unfortunately, no synthetic blood has yet made it through FDA approval.

But DARPA backed the venture for a reason. The logistics chain to get blood from donors to patients, including those in war zones, can be insane. Blood shipments to Iraq and Afghanistan often end up being 21 days old when they arrive, meaning there's only one more week to use it. Synthetic blood could be universal O-negative blood with zero chance of spreading infections and have a much longer shelf life.

So, sure, it's creepy. But the lives of millions of disaster victims and thousands of troops are in the balance, so let's press forward.

2.Remote body control

Yeah, we're talking dudes with remotes controlling the bodies of other living animals. Sure, the organisms being controlled were beetles, not humans, but still, creepy.

But the cyborg insects worked, and could eventually see deployments around the world. The big benefit to using them? They were designed to carry chemical sensors into warzones to help identify IED and mine locations. The inventor who first got cyborg beetles into the air pointed to their potential for tracking conditions in disaster zones and even finding injured people in the rubble.

3.Brain implants

A schematic showing the physical nature of deep brain stimulation.

(University of Iowa)

The process of implanting electrodes into the brain is even worse then you're probably imagining. Doctors can either jab a large electrode deep into the brain, or they can create a lattice and plant it against the side of the brain, allowing some brain cells to grow into the lattice. Either way: metal inside your skull and brain.

But, brace yourselves, amazing medicine is already being done with these things, from alleviating Parkinson's symptoms to treating depression to allowing amputees to control prosthetics. And DARPA is doubling down, calling for new implants and procedures that will allow direct connection to 1 million neurons, way up from the few hundred possible today.

4.Frozen soldiers

A person shows off his tattoo with biostasis instructions. DARPA is looking at biostasis protocols that might work in emergencies.

(Photo by Steve Jurvetson)

You'll see this fairly often on mystery and conspiracy websites, "DARPA wants frozen soldiers." Those same websites sometimes also claim that the U.S. is going to unleash an army of White Walkers and Olafs over the ice caps to destroy Russia. Or they'll have reports of immortal soldiers who will presumably suck the blood of the innocent and wax poetic about how hot Kristen Stewart is.

In actuality, DARPA just wants to put injured people in biostatis to give medical personnel more time to evacuate and treat them, potentially turning the "Golden Hour" of medevacs into the "Golden Couple of Days." This could be done by rapidly lowering blood temperatures, something the medical community has looked at for heart attack victims. But DARPA's program focuses on proteins and cellular processes, hopefully allowing for interventions at room temperature.

If it works, expect to see the process in use in a war with near peers who can force our medevac birds to stay on the ground, and expect to see it quickly copied to ambulance services around the world.

5.Robot nano-doctors in our bodies

The schematic of a proposed nanorobot.

(Graphic by Waquarahmad)

Imagine whole pharmacies inside every soldier, floating through their bloodstreams, ready to deliver drugs at any time. DARPA's In Vivo Nanoplatforms program calls for persistent nanoparticles to be planted inside organisms, especially troops, but potentially also civilians in populations vulnerable to infection.

The idea is to have sensors inside people that can provide very early detection of disease or injury, especially infectious diseases that spread rapidly. That's what they call, "in vivo diagnostics." Other groups would also get "in vivo therapeutics," additional nanoparticles that can provide extremely targeted drugs directly to the relevant infected or injured cells and tissues.

6.Sweating robots

A SCHAFT robot competes in the DARPA robotics challenge it eventually won.

(Department of Defense)

DARPA didn't directly call for sweating robots, but the winner of their robotics challenge was from SCHAFT. Their robot can "sweat" and outperformed all of the other competitors. So, what's so great about giving robots the ability to stink up the showers with humans? Is it to allow them to evolve into Cylons and seduce us before killing us?

Nope, it's for the same reason that humans sweat: Robots are getting more complex with more motors and computing units on board to do more complex tasks. But all of that tech generates a ton of heat. To dissipate this, SCHAFT tried pushing filtered water through the robot's frame and allowing it to evaporate, cooling it. Spoiler: It worked. And robots that can better cool themselves can carry more powerful processors and motors, and therefore perform better in emergencies.