Always looking for the most cutting-edge concepts and advanced technology, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) tried a new method of outreach last week as they hosted the first DARPA Service Academies Innovation Challenge. With nine teams in attendance—three each from the U.S. Air Force, Naval, and Military Academies—the contest encouraged the cultivation of young talent by tasking participants with presenting projects that used inventive means to address military challenges.
The winning team, from the U.S. Air Force Academy, took the prize for their Distributed Propulsion System, an approach to aircraft thrust augmentation designed to provide major savings in fuel costs. By redirecting excess air through the plane’s wings, the team’s prototype could increase forward thrust while using less fuel than traditional engines.
Honorable mentions were given to an Army team presenting a method for producing structural materials that could double as power sources, providing potential weight savings, and to a Navy team that demonstrated the capability to use Unix-based servers on a small satellite as a low-cost way to provide Internet connectivity in austere locations. The Crowd Favorite Award, voted on by attendees, went to an Army team that presented an operational prototype inflatable bladder system capable of lifting up to 22.5 tons.
The early stages of the challenge actually began last October, when the academies formed more than 30 teams and began developing their projects. Local competitions narrowed down the final competing teams for each academy to three. Judges made their evaluations based on whether the project addressed current or future DoD challenges over the short, middle or long term; whether each project’s approach was significantly original and technically feasible; and whether each project could create transformative capabilities and/or provide significant improvement over existing technologies.
“The cadets and midshipmen truly impressed us in terms of developing brilliant new concepts and innovative prototypes that could create positive impact for the military,” said Daniel Ragsdale, DARPA program manager, in a press release. “The projects spanned the technology spectrum—from software and robotics to avionics and materials science—and showed the interdisciplinary, solution-focused thinking DARPA is always looking for.”
A pilot initiative for DARPA, the Service Academies Innovation Challenge followed the winter’s Service Academies Cyber Stakes, a three-day decathlon-style cybersecurity competition aimed at helping DoD achieve its goal of integrating 6,000 cybersecurity experts into combatant commands by 2016. The success of both events shows the potential for innovation and ingenuity to be found at all echelons of the military—a promising indication for the ability of the nation’s up and coming servicemembers to take on some of the toughest anticipated challenges.♦