Mar 18, 2016 | By Alec

Warfare has undergone a very strange development over the past century. The Third Reich was destroyed in just a year after D-Day in 1944 – so why can it take a decade to pacify weak, divided countries with all of the West’s modern military might? While multiple factors are in play, one of them is that weapons have become far more accessible. In part via smuggling, but DIY weapons are far easier to build in 2016 than they were in 1944. That’s why the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now calling on the ingenuity of hobbyists to submit their plans for DIY weapons, built with accessible electronics, chemicals and 3D printed parts, to enable the US to better prepare against terrorist threats.

It’s a strange situation when you think about it. A few decades ago, governments had an almost complete monopoly on weapons, aside from the occasional hunting rifle. But now, the average garage or kitchen cabinet contains enough materials to seriously attack people. The Boston bombers used a pressure cooker filled with nails, while Iraqi and Afghani insurgents are specialized in hiding bombs in trash, such as empty soda cans (the single deadliest weapon used against US forces in both conflicts). “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,” DARPA explains on their website.

That is, in a nutshell, the problem behind this new DARPA plan. They are hoping to enlist the ‘inventor’s eye’ to assess how seemingly harmless technologies can become security threats. To combat those problems, they are launching the ‘Improv’ program, and are calling on experts from every field and every walk of life to look at the world’s bustling technology marketplace to find out how benign technologies and appliances can become serious threats. It’s not about building new weapons that can be used by soldiers, but about getting in the head of potential attackers. “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 on the DARPA website. “Improv is being launched in recognition that strategic surprise can also come from more familiar technologies, adapted and applied in novel ways.”

As part of Improv, specialists are asked to look at, convert and combine just about every commonly available product. Off-the-shelf electronics, 3D printed parts, and even open-source code that can attack military technologies. If that Arduino can control your 3D printed cosplay accessory, it can also control a bomb, essentially. DARPA is also inviting just about everyone, from engineers, biologists, information technologists and others “to show how easily-accessed hardware, software, processes and methods might be used to create products or systems that could pose a future threat.”

While it might seem a bit strange to ask civilians to think about bomb technology, Main further argued it fits in their mindset. “DARPA often looks at the world from the point of view of our potential adversaries to predict what they might do with available technology,” he argued 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.”

But you can also get something out of it (aside from a background check). DARPA will assess all ideas and offer varying levels of development support. Funds will be made available for some projects, for a short feasibility-study phase. Speed is also crucial, with working prototypes needing to be realistic within just 90 days. “If performance warrants, DARPA may advance the relevant capabilities in separate follow-on efforts,” they add. But of course, everything must “stay within the bounds of local, state, and federal laws.” This isn’t a build-your-own-bomb free-for-all. If DARPA is interested in your concept, they can offer up to $40,000 for ideas and up to $70,000 for additional funding. Up to $20,000 more in prize money is also available.

It’s an unusual program, but probably a necessary one. 3D printing and all-purpose making is becoming a significant, popular and affordable hobby filled with knowledge and ingenuity. It would be naïve to think that it will solely be used for non-violent purposes, so DARPA is probably correct in pre-empting security risks. If you’ve been thinking about 3D printed explosives or that drones can become dangerous bomb-carrying contraptions, this might be the program for you. They are also hosting a webcast for proposers on Tuesday, March 29, and Wednesday, March 30. Abstracts are due on April 13. Just don’t be surprised if your name ends up in a certain database.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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