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DARPA plans for preventing surprises from commercial technologies and creating surprises for adversaries

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


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Improv program is soliciting innovative research proposals for prototype products and systems that have the potential to threaten current military operations, equipment, or personnel and are assembled primarily from commercially available technology.


“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. Increasingly, however, off-the-shelf equipment developed for the transportation, construction, agricultural and other commercial sectors features highly sophisticated components, which resourceful adversaries can modify or combine to create novel and unanticipated security threats,” says DARPA.


Threat potential of Commercial technologies

Improv will explore ways to combine or convert commercially available products such as off-the-shelf electronics, components created through rapid prototyping, and open-source code to cost-effectively create sophisticated military technologies and capabilities.

Proposers are free to reconfigure, repurpose, program, reprogram, modify, combine, or recombine commercially available technology in any way within the bounds of local, state, and federal laws and regulations. Use of components, products, and systems from non-military technical specialties (e.g., transportation, construction, maritime, and communications) is of particular interest.

To bring a broad range of perspectives to bear, DARPA is inviting engineers, biologists, information technologists and others from the full spectrum of technical disciplines—including credentialed professionals and skilled hobbyists—to show how easily-accessed hardware, software, processes and methods might be used to create products or systems that could pose a future threat.


Think Ahead of adversaries

Terrorist groups have limited resources and limited means; thus, they are quick to refine their methods, improving on time-tested tech­niques, or improvise, seeking out new ways to strike or new targets to attack. In response, law enforcement officials update their investigatory techniques or implement new security mea­sures.

“DARPA often looks at the world from the point of view of our potential adversaries to predict what they might do with available technology,” Main said. “Historically we did this by pulling together a small group of technical experts, but the easy availability in today’s world of an enormous range of powerful technologies means that any group of experts only covers a small slice of the available possibilities. In Improv we are reaching out to the full range of technical experts to involve them in a critical national security issue.


Expanding awareness for outside innovation

“The goal of the program is to cast a wide net for ideas,” DARPA program manager John Main said of Improv. “We have experts who tell us some things that are possible, but the truth is that there is a huge variety of technology available to almost anyone, so a panel of experts can only tell us part of the story.

“DoD should expand and connect initiatives at OSD and in the military departments that search for specific technology development from outside innovation. Furthermore, DoD needs to expand the search to identify outside innovations with military value, particularly including innovations that could be used by potential adversaries,” recommended Report of the CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and the CSIS International Security Program, authored by Andrew P. Hunter & Ryan A. Crotty.

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