Tag Archives: DARPA

DARPA May Have Found the Secret to Flying Aircraft Carriers

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Dynetics, a defense and aerospace company, has announced that it successfully tested its X-61A Gremlin Air Vehicle in November of 2019. The flight, which lasted for one hour and 41 minutes, demonstrated a number of the drone aircraft’s capabilities. The drone successfully completed the entire test but was destroyed after its main parachute failed to deploy. Dynetics intends to continue testing with its other four drones.

The purpose of this test was for Dynetics to demonstrate that its GAV could launch from a C-130, as well as test various capabilities like wing deployment, cold engine start, and transition to stable, powered flight, verify performance and communication links between ground and air controllers, and collect data on the drone’s overall performance. The parachute system was not on the list of systems for testing, fortunately.

The goal of the X-61A Gremlin is to show how an existing plane like a C-130 can be used to quickly launch and recover drone aircraft. The company’s next flight test will focus on recovering four drones within 30 minutes.

Drone Captain and the World of Tomorrow

“What if we had a plane that could launch other planes?” is an idea with a long history. The British experimented with the idea of slinging Sopwith Camels underneath HM Airship No. 23 in 1917, back when zeppelins were the only way to generate enough lifting capacity to even try this stunt.

So, the big thing is filled with explosive hydrogen, and the little thing is a prop-driven aircraft that was supposed to dock with it. In 1917. They had to use a dirigible for this because nothing else could lift the pilot’s balls off the ground.

Wikipedia notes that both a manned and unmanned Sopwith Camel launched successfully, which kind of makes you wonder whether that means “We pulled a lever and the plane fell off the way it was supposed to,” given that remote control vehicles hadn’t been invented yet.

Once the Hindenberg convinced world+dog that airships were a bad idea, the idea got shelved until after WW2 and the miracle of atomic power. Lockheed suggested the CL-1201 — an aircraft with a wingspan of 1,120 feet (340m). To put that in perspective, the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch vehicle has a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters). The CL-1201, shown below in this image from Reddit with Air Force One displayed for scale, would have deployed a 1,830MW reactor. One potential envisioned use for the aircraft was as an aircraft carrier, with the ability to loiter on site for 41 days. Unsurprisingly, no one wanted a skyscraper-sized aircraft with a massive nuclear reactor flying around over their heads.

Later, Convair proposed using the B-36 Peacemaker as a carrier for four McDonnell F-85 Goblin parasite fighters. The Goblin, if you’ve never seen one, looks like someone took a standard fighter jet, cut half of it out, and then glued the tail back on. Boeing later developed a concept for the 747 that would have seen the jet used as an airborne carrier for up to 10 “microfighters.” The C-130 Hercules has even carried drones before, though these were “Firebee” gunnery target drones — a far cry from the modern vehicles in-use today.

McDonnell XF-85. (U.S. Air Force photo).

Assuming the GAV tests continue to pan out, we could see the C-130 deployed to a genuine aircraft carrier role at some point in the future. It turns out flying aircraft carriers might be plausible once you get rid of the pilots. Dynetics doesn’t seem to have published very many details on what the GAV can do, which isn’t surprising given that this is intended as a military prototype. Devices like the GAV could be outfitted with weapons or used for aerial reconnaissance.

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DARPA, University of Michigan Team Up to Build ‘Unhackable’ Chip

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DARPA has announced a $ 3.6 million grant to a University of Michigan team with the goal of building an “unhackable” processor. Software-based security has proven incapable of meeting this goal, and while hardware models like Intel’s IME or ARM’s TrustZone have had better luck overall, these systems can be affected by major bugs themselves and don’t protect the entire contents of the microprocessor.

Todd Austin, leader of the Morpheus project at UM, likens his team’s design to a giant Rubik’s Cube. His architecture focuses on moving data stored within the chip to various randomized locations while also constantly re-encrypting stored passwords. Even if a hacker managed to find a memory block with a password in it that was vulnerable to decryption, the data won’t be there by the time the password-cracker finishes its work. Even modern GPUs, which are staggeringly good at password decryption, require time to work.

“We are making the computer an unsolvable puzzle,” Austin said. “It’s like if you’re solving a Rubik’s Cube and every time you blink, I rearrange it. What’s incredibly exciting about the project is that it will fix tomorrow’s vulnerabilities. I’ve never known any security system that could be future proof.”


Rowhammer targets either the single purple row to flip the yellow bits or can target both yellow rows to flip the purple bits.

What the Michigan team is describing would be an incredibly useful set of capabilities — if it can be made to work. We’ve seen exploits before, like Rowhammer, that function precisely by targeting a given area of memory and hammering adjacent rows with repeated accesses in an attempt to flip bits within the target row (hence the name). Zero-day exploits are a common and potentially devastating problem. And frankly, it’s simply downright tiresome to be forever chasing down security bulletins and updating various applications. A chip that could juggle its memory addresses and keep data safely encrypted could be useful in a wide range of security applications.

What’s less clear is how easily the technology could be integrated into modern processors or what impact these rapid-fire data shifts would have on functionality. The DARPA SSITH project (System Security Integrated Through Hardware and Firmware) specifically states that “The strategic challenge for participants in the SSITH program will be to develop new integrated circuit (IC) architectures that lack the current software-accessible points of illicit entry, yet retain the computational functions and high-performance the ICs were designed to deliver.”

DARPA’s goal is to fund initial development on a processor design capable of preventing one or more of seven security flaws: Permission and privilege escalations, buffer errors, resource management, information leakage, numeric errors, crypto errors, and code injection. These seven types of attacks supposedly comprise a whopping 40 percent of all attack types; cutting even one or two of them out could significantly reduce security issues in the military and consumer world.

(Image credit: DARPA)

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DARPA Picks Dream Teams to Develop Wireless Brain Interface

Last summer we reported on a new project called the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD), brought to you by the acronym-happy spooks at DARPA. The project is to create an implantable, wireless, wideband brain-computer interface capable of reading from neurons as well as “writing” to them by sending signals that the neurons accept. The device is called the Neural Input-Output Bus (NIOB). Now DARPA has picked six dream-team research groups that will split $ 65 million in funding to develop the NIOB by way of their respective goals.

The NESD program aims to develop advanced neural devices that offer improved fidelity, resolution, and precision sensory interfaces for therapeutic applications, said Phillip Alvelda, the founding NESD Program Manager. “By increasing the capacity of advanced neural interfaces to engage more than one million neurons in parallel, NESD aims to enable rich two-way communication with the brain at a scale that will help deepen our understanding of that organ’s underlying biology, complexity, and function,” he said in a statement.

The NESD group includes a team each from Brown, Columbia, and UC Berkeley, as well as Silicon Valley startup Paradromics, a research presence from the Fondation Voir et Entendre, and a team from the John B. Pierce Laboratory.

The NIOB device will act as a “cortical modem” that will be capable of recording and stimulating brain activity with an effective data rate of over 1Gbps. The different research groups are using different interfaces, including tissue-thin flexible circuits, wireless “neurograins” the size of a grain of sand, holographic microscopes capable of monitoring thousands of neurons at once, and even a net of LEDs covering the cortex. But they’ll all be capable of doing sensory I/O.

Paradromics, for its part, intends to build a device that can function as a speech prosthetic. “Together with our public and private partners we will be providing the NIOB to patients with ALS who have lost the ability to speak, allowing them to communicate fluently through the aid of the implant,” the company said in a statement.

The Paradromics device will record signals from the superior temporal gyrus, a region of the brain that decodes speech by parsing the audio stream into phonemes. The device design is a brushlike implant made of bundled nanowires, reminiscent of fiber-optic cables, where each fiber in the brush would interact with (ideally) a single neuron. The end of each fiber is finely shaped and polished, and the bundle is also carefully shaped to budge neurons apart without doing too much damage.

NESD project specs demand that whatever the use case, the whole package should take up about a cubic centimeter: in their words, the volume of two nickels back to back.

The data throughput afforded by such a device is a function of how well we understand the idioms in the electrochemical language of the brain. And indeed, DARPA’s description page for the project explains, successfully developing a device like this will require “integrated breakthroughs across numerous disciplines including neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing.”

NIOB is scheduled to go to clinical trials in 2021. But the implications are much wider than just the hardware and software developments. MIT Tech Review points out that if the project is successful, the resulting theory and tech will also expand the ability of neuroscientists to listen in as groups of neurons generate complex behaviors, knit together sensory stimuli, and even create consciousness itself. It will also clearly result in a legal battle when the FBI and/or CIA demand warrantless wiretap authority and inbuilt backdoors. These modern times.

For more, we’ve previously covered the semantic atlas that shows where and how your brain stores the meanings of words. Parsing the audio stream that we hear into phonemes comes before parsing phonemes into words and their semantic meanings.

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