When seeking new technologies or looking for outside-the-Pentagon ideas, the Department of Defense’s blue-sky research lab likes to cast a wide net. And now it’s even hoping to snare some good, civilian ideas on how to turn everyday items into sophisticated military threats.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is inviting everyone from professional weapon-makers to “skilled hobbyists” to think hard on the best means of turning off-the-shelf, commercially available technologies into weapons or systems that could be used against the U.S. military and its allies.
“Use of components, products, and systems from non-military technical specialties (e.g., transportation, construction, maritime, and communications) is of particular interest,” according to a DARPA document outlining the initiative. And the definition of “commercially available technology” is basically unrestricted.
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The idea here isn’t to have the general public develop new weapons, but rather to get inside the heads of potential attackers from all walks of life and identify how they might creatively harm to the U.S. military.
DARPA earns its paycheck by thinking about the Pentagon’s thorniest problems—both current and future—a little differently, and improvised weapons most definitely fit into that category. During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices were (and remain) the single deadliest weapon used against U.S. forces.
But improvised pressure-cooker bombs and cell phone triggers aren’t the only threat DARPA hopes its aptly named Improv program will address. Over the last decade U.S. troops and their allies have also faced homemade signal jammers, malicious software code, and even weaponized drones—not the ones designed for military warfare, but inexpensive recreational aircraft hacked into artillery spotters and airborne missiles.
“For decades, U.S. national security was ensured in large part by a simple advantage: a near-monopoly on access to the most advanced technologies,” DARPA wrote in a press release announcing the program. But today, off-the-shelf gear developed for various industries feature sophisticated components that can be modified to create unexpected threats.
That’s why DARPA isn’t just looking for engineers that can cobble together kinetic weapons, but also biologists, information technologists, software coders—basically anyone that might be able to help the Pentagon address digital, biological, chemical, and other DIY threats.
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But how can you get the U.S. government to pay you to weaponize your Roomba? First, while DARPA encourages people to be as creative as they like in hand-crafting their implements of war, it encourages them to do so “within the bounds of local, state, and federal laws and regulations.”
The full breakdown of the competition rules can be found within DARPA’s broad agency announcement. Individuals or companies with a good idea should submit the idea to DARPA for a phase one weed-out. DARPA will then move the ideas it likes into the competition’s next phase which offers up to $40,000 per submission. Those who that make that cut will have just two-weeks to create a prototype, with up to $70,000 in additional funding as incentive.
Ideas that DARPA decides are good enough to warrant an independent evaluation by government weapons testers will also score their designers up to $20,000 more in prize money—and probably a long, thorough background check.