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Biology could inform a new round of tech innovation

Apr. 3, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By AMBER CORRIN   |   Comments
DARPA's new office aims to take inspiration from nature to engineer new national defense technology.
DARPA's new office aims to take inspiration from nature to engineer new national defense technology. (Boston Dynamics/DARPA)
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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is best known for its major advancements in weapons systems and other next-generation military technology, but its newest program office is focused somewhere unorthodox: nature.

DARPA’s Biological Technology Office aims to take lessons from the world of life sciences and apply them to engineering and technology in national defense. The new division stems from work done at DARPA’s Defense Sciences and Microsystems Technology offices, from which some projects will migrate, but the BTO portfolio will include new undertakings as well.

One of the initial programs is Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces, which expands on previous DARPA work focused on cutting-edge prosthetic technology. One of the goals is to get high-tech, lifelike capabilities back to service members who suffered limb loss or other injuries in combat.

BTO’s efforts include several data-intensive areas of inquiry, including applying biological complexity at scale.

“Biological systems operate over an enormous range of spatial, physical, and temporal scales. Some organisms thrive as individual cells but most depend on dynamic interactions with other species; humans, for example, are colonized by communities of foreign cells that greatly outnumber their own and have potentially significant but still largely mysterious impacts on metabolism, psychological state, performance, and health,” reads the DARPA announcement. “A better understanding of the interactions between mammalian and non-mammalian species and micro- and macro-organisms could foster new approaches to enhancing mental and physical health in routine and threatening situations.” While the announcement does not specifically refer to Big Data, it seems clear that many of the envisioned projects will rely on the ability to collect and analyze information.

Three core focus areas for the BTO include restoring and maintaining war fighter abilities, harnessing biological systems and applying biological complexity at scale, according to a DARPA release.

“Before BTO, DARPA had a handful of biologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and the like, interested in synthesizing their work but distributed across different offices,” BTO Director Geoff Ling said in the release. “Now we’re under one roof, so to speak, and looking to attract a new community of scholars, who will bring a host of new ideas at the intersection of traditional and emerging disciplines.”

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