DARPA embraces nature with establishment of Biological Technologies Office
By Darren Quick
April 1, 2014
From robotics to optics and forgery prevention to solar cells, biomimicry has proven fertile ground for researchers. Recognizing nature's potential in the development of new technologies, DARPA has announced the establishment of the Biological Technologies Office (BTO), a new division that aims to "merge biology, engineering, and computer science to harness the power of natural systems for national security."
The BTO will build on work carried out by DARPA's Defense Sciences Office (DSO) and Microsystems Technology Office (MTO), with a number of programs from these offices to be transferred to the BTO.
"Before BTO, DARPA had a handful of biologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and the like, interested in synthesizing their work but distributed across different offices," said Geoff Ling, who has been named as the first director of the BTO. "Now we’re under one roof, so to speak, and looking to attract a new community of scholars, who will bring a host of new ideas at the intersection of traditional and emerging disciplines."
The division's initial portfolio will include the Hand Proprioception & Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX), Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET), Restoring Active Memory (RAM), and Warrior Web programs, just to name a few. It will also initiate new programs, drawing on ideas from program managers and the research community.
DARPA has listed three research areas that the BTO will focus on.
- Restore and Maintain Warfighter Abilities: This not only includes the development of advanced prosthetics and neural interfaces, but also research into biological issues that can affect a warfighter's ability to operate. The Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program, which is tasked with developing therapies to reduce the severity of neuropsychological illness, and the Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT) program, which will seek new ways to identify and protect against infectious diseases, are two programs that fall under this umbrella.
- Harness Biological Systems: By unlocking the fundamental processes underlying biological systems, the BTO aims to develop new products and systems that go beyond what is possible with conventional chemistry and manufacturing technologies. The Living Foundries program, which aims to create a biologically based manufacturing platform providing rapid, scalable access to new materials, falls within this area. As does the Chronicle of Lineage Indicative of Origins (CLIO) program, which will look at ways to ensure controls to protect against intentionally harmful genetic engineering, prevent proprietary strains falling into the wrong hands, and develop forensic tools to aid in the investigation of biological incidents.
- Apply Biological Complexity at Scale: By gaining a greater understanding of the foreign organisms – both beneficial and harmful – that call the human body home, the BTO hopes it will be possible to improve physical health in routine and threatening situations. Additionally, it will examine the dynamics of disease vectors so as to better understand why some spread quickly around the globe while others move slowly and develop ways to guard against such organisms. Through the Biochronicity program, the BTO will also look for temporal instructions in biological organisms with the goal of managing the effects of time on human physiology.
DARPA says it recognizes that the nature of the BTO's research will mean it will sometimes be the first to deal with the ethical, legal, or social dilemmas that cutting edge biological technologies can raise. With this in mind, DARPA says it will periodically call on scholars with expertise in the relevant area to discuss such issues.