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DARPA microwave programs

Updated July 8, 2011

Go to our download area and get a copy of DARPA's 2007 strategic plan. Here's two figures from the plan that illustrate DARPA's role in technology, if you've been to a DARPA presentation you've see these charts no doubt!

On this page we will (in absolutely zero detail) describe some of the DARPA programs past and present that are used to advance the state of the art in microwave engineering, here in the United States. DARPA only takes on far-out jobs that are high-risk/high payoff, which has led to the expression "DARPA hard", meaning a problem that is gonna take your best guys some time (and beaucoups dinero) to figure out. Increasingly their mission has changed to taking cool technology into the field, rather than pure research.

Note: all of the information on this site was gathered from the darpa.mil web site. You can rest assured that nothing on Microwaves101.com is in violation of the International Traffic In Arms Regulations (ITAR) .

The projected budget of DARPA is $3.3B for 2007! We'll wager a guess and say that somewhere in the neighborhood of $100M of DARPA's wallet o'warbucks goes to develop microwave hardware each year. Who's your Daddy?

History of DARPA

DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It one point the removed the word "defense" from their name and DARPA became ARPA, but that sounded like a noise that a sick manatee might make so they went back to the original moniker.

DARPA was formed in 1958, shortly after Sputnik was launched, so the US would not be caught by any other surprises. It's original focus was to get the US on track in the Space Race, but over time it has evolved into much more.

DARPA programs have made some of the major advancements in technology that the modern world depends on. For example, the internet was once the ARPANET. Here is a 185 page document that details some of the technologies that were transitioned from DARPA to useful military and commercial products. This includes the SR-71 blackbird, early phase array antennas, the M-16 rifle, satellite navigation systems (which led to the global positioning system (GPS), the Saturn V launch vehicle that put Apollo astronauts on their way to to the Moon, and stealth fighter bomber and navy vessels (Sea Shadow). By the way, read here the real quote about Al Gore "inventing" the internet. Another triumph of conservative mind control by substance abusers Bush and Limbaugh.

In terms of microwave engineering, DARPA was responsible for the huge cash injection that made MMICs into a profitable industry in the United States (for at least a short time). The "MIMIC" program dumped wheelbarrows of cash into GaAs foundries across the country from 1988 to 1999, each one working on different microwave chipsets that would support defense-related hardware such as T/R modules and EW receivers. Many older microwave program managers get misty eyed when they think back to these exciting times, but these dudes gotta stop living in the past... comments that start with "I remember on the MIMIC program" have no real relevance today, that was two wars ago. Later programs such MAFET (Microwave and Analog Front-End Technology) achieved further cost reductions in MMICs.

Grand Challenge was DARPA's latest fifteen minutes of fame, where robot vehicles competed against each other to drive across the desert. Next up is the "Urban Challenge", where teams will compete to build an autonomous vehicle able to complete a 60-mile urban course safely in less than 6 hours. We'd like to suggest that they follow up with a "NASCAR Challenge!"

Ongoing and future DARPA programs

Update October 2006: DARPA has reorganized, they now have six main offices. For microwave engineering work, the MTO office is the one to watch. Here's an org chart of DARPA, which was approved for public release:

Microsystems Technology Office

Most DARPA programs that have to do with microwaves come from the MTO program office. In their own words:

"Exploit breakthroughs in materials, devices, circuits, and mathematics to develop beyond leading edge components with revolutionary performance and functionality to enable new platform capability for the Department of Defense."

Here is some history from the DARPA MTO web site. For some reason this office just loves MEMS technology, but we're not convinced.

Present programs include 3-D Micro Electromagnetic Radio Frequency Systems ( 3D MERFS). This is a cool program that seeks to make rectangular coax cheaply, using printed wiring board technology. The contractors are Rohm and Haas, and BAE. Who's your Papa? Check out our new page on rectax to lean more about this topic!

WBGS2 Wide Band Gap Semiconductor is a cash injection for those US foundries that are pursuing gallium nitride (GaN) and/or silicon carbide devices.

IRFFE means Intelligent RF Front Ends. This program seeks to build devices that can operate across wide frequency bands, by self-tuning to the desired frequency. Low loss switches are used to move matching circuits to optimize at different bands. This is NOT a trivial problem, but no DARPA project starts out trivial!

SMART Scalable Millimeter-Wave Architectures for Reconfigurable Transceivers wants to develop 3-dimensional MMIC technology so that power amps can fit into the lattice spacing of a phased array antenna. Northrop Grumman and Rockwell each own part of this program.

RF MEMS Improvements (RF MEMS). DARPA was one of the early sponsors of MEMS work, and even though MEMS should be well beyond the DARPA stage of life, MEMS work goes on. Contractor Radant claims to have solved the Riddle of MEMS.

Strategic Technology Office (STO)

STO was formed by merging the Advanced Technology Office (ATO) and the Special Projects Office (SPO). This happened over the summer of 2006. This is another organization worth watching for microwave-related work.

The former Advanced Technology Office (ATO) "researches, demonstrates, and develops high payoff projects in maritime, communications, special operations, and information assurance and survivability mission areas. These projects support military operations throughout the spectrum of conflict. ATO adapts advanced technologies into military systems and also exploits emerging technologies for future programs. The ultimate goal is superior cost-effective systems the military can use to respond to new and emerging threats."

This program office may be involved in microwave technology, but at the system level. We like to think that ATO will help prevent Nena's worst nightmare, the 99 Red Balloon Scenario:

99 Duesenjaeger, Jeder war ein grosser Krieger
Hielten sich fuer Captain Kirk, sas gab ein grosses Feuerwerk!

Here is the direct translation of the song from German!

Low cost cruise missile defense (LCCMD) developed a Ka-band AESA (an active phased array). This program originated in the SPO and now falls under STO. Got that?

Defense Science Office

Intestinal fortitude is a real program!



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