DARPA Eight Questions

22 Aug 2020

DARPA is the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, formerly known as ARPA.

Airborne. Photo: DARPA

For 60 years DARPA has held to a singular and enduring mission: to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security. DARPA reaches for transformational change instead of incremental advances.

The genesis of DARPA dates back to the launch of Sputnik in 1957 (hear the beep), and a commitment by the United States that, from that time forward, it would be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises.

Working with innovators inside and outside of government, DARPA has repeatedly delivered on that mission, transforming revolutionary concepts and even seeming impossibilities into practical capabilities. The results have not only included game-changing military capabilities such as precision weapons and stealth technology, but also icons of modern society such as the Internet, automated voice recognition, language translation, and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers small enough to embed in consumer devices.

This timeline showcases some of DARPA’s important innovations over the last six decades. It is worth your time.

DARPA operates on the principle that generating big rewards requires taking big risks. But how does the Agency determine which risks are worth taking?

George Heilmeier, a former DARPA director (1975-1977), crafted a set of questions known as the “Heilmeier Catechism” to assist agency officials think through and evaluate proposed research programs.

  1. What are you trying to do? articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  2. How is it done today and what are the limits of current practice?
  3. What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  4. Who cares? if you are successful what difference will it make?
  5. What are the risks?
  6. How much will it cost?
  7. How long will it take?
  8. What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for success?

Ben Reinhardt’s exposition Why does DARPA work? takes a deep dive into the DARPA model to understand if organizations in other domains can riff on the model to generate equally huge results. He explores these major areas

  • Program Managers
  • Incentives and Structure
  • Funding
  • Process

Sources, See Also