Monday, March 03, 2014

DARPA Goes Open Source as Others Beg for Government Assistance

          by Brian Orlotti

DARPA turned 50 in 2008. Graphic c/o DARPA.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has created a new website to make software, publications, and experimental data from its various projects available to the public.

DARPA, an agency of the US Department of Defense responsible for the development of new military technologies (notable examples include the internet and the global positioning system), has over decades amassed a large quantity of research in fields as diverse as robotics, programming languages, advanced communication systems and even mind reading. Much of this data is open source, but hasn't always been readily accessible.

On Feb 4th, DARPA responded to requests from the research and development community by publishing the DARPA Open Catalog, a website that aggregates source code and other data for all public DARPA-funded projects. Currently, this includes 60 different projects, done in collaboration with a variety of organizations including Microsoft Research, Yahoo Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Examples of projects in the Open Catalog include "Vowpal Wabbit," a fast machine learning system sponsored by Microsoft Research and Yahoo Research and the MIT-developed dynamic programming language "Julia."

Sample DARPA challenges showing how often DARPA looks outside itself to develop new ideas. Graphic c/o DARPA.

DARPA’s rationale for creating the Open Catalog is two-fold. First, DARPA hopes to foster research and development communities around its research which could give birth to new technology companies and industries. Secondly, DARPA hopes to harness the strengths of the open source software model by allowing the public to contribute to its research, which could then be incorporated back into DARPA’s own programs. Call it crowd-sourcing for the military-industrial complex.

As outlined in the February 27th, 2014 article "DARPA Open Catalog Makes Agency-Sponsored Software and Publications Available to All," DARPA has stated that if R&D communities show sufficient interest, "they will continue to add information generated by its programs (including software, publications, data and experimental results) to the Open Catalog."

The rationale behind the program is similar to that of IT and NewSpace incubators, where individuals & small businesses are developed in the hopes of fostering larger growth. It's also a logical outgrowth of DARPA's recent quest to rebuild its original reputation to bring together academics and public workers from disparate areas to generate "outside the box thinking." 

But while DARPA seems attuned to this way of thinking and has embraced it, other communities appear less than receptive.

For example, the February 28th, 2014 Space Policy online article "House Hearing Underscores Lack of Consensus on Next Steps in Human Spaceflight," discussed the February 27th appearance of Denis Tito before the US House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee to present the newest re-branding of his ‘Inspiration Mars’ mission concept.

An artist's conception showing components of the new and improved Inspiration Mars spacecraft design. The stack now includes, from left, an Orion-derived re-entry pod, a Cygnus-derived habitat module and a service module for avionics, control and communications. A previous configuration, utilizing SpaceX and Bigelow components, seems to have been abandoned in the quest for government funding. Graphic c/o NBC News

In this iteration, all funding would come from the US government, the mission would now explicitly utilize the troubled NASA Space Launch System (SLS), thus providing SLS with what it has lacked until now (a mission), plus the launch date has been pushed out to 2021 instead of 2018 to allow the SLS to become operational.

Since there is no direct launch window for a Mars trip in 2021, the revised mission calls for a flyby of Venus for a gravity assist which would then propel the crew to Mars.

Brian Orlotti.
In the case of Inspiration Mars, we see a failed private entity now completely dependent on government resources for progress. In the case of the DARPA Open Catalog, we see government distributing its knowledge to private entities, enabling them to acquire resources and achieve for themselves. 

The contrast is a stark one and should not be lost on the space sector.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

1 comment:

  1. mind reading? if this is your first article Brian I understand - but to put forth such silliness detracts from your wee tome. By doing proper research you would also have found DARPA is a sink-hole of money - its 'known' budget is > than our (Canadian) defense expenditures - value for money is not a concern to the US but we are not them. Keep us out of the X-files - early days man.


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