DARPA finds creativity

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said it will expand its Young Faculty Award (YFA) program  because it has generated promising research ideas.

The purpose of the grant program, now in its second year, is to encourage nontenured university faculty members to participate in DARPA initiatives and jump-start research efforts that could later be included in formal DARPA programs. At least three of last year’s YFA projects have been incorporated into DARPA programs, said Thomas Kenny, YFA program manager.

“Academia is one of the engines of creativity, and young faculty are often the creators of great ideas,” Kenny said. “Young faculty members don’t know yet what is impossible. They are an excellent complement to what we get from the national laboratories, the [Defense Department] laboratories and the integrators.”

DARPA is seeking proposals from young faculty members for the second part of the program, which will include research on technologies used in military training exercises.

Under this aspect of the program, grant recipients will participate in DOD training exercises and seek innovative ways to improve technologies and systems.

The training exercises are intended to give YFA researchers a chance to gain hands-on experience with DOD training technologies and work with department officials who use those technologies. “Once they meet them, we think the awardees will go home wanting to solve their problems,” Kenny said.

YFA’s latest solicitation seeks proposals in five areas of interest to DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office: electronics, photonics, micro and nano electromechanical systems, architectures, and algorithms. These areas generally reflect the areas the office works on, Kenny said.

YFA also has another  purpose: educating young faculty members about how to do business with DARPA. “It is a challenge to understand how to approach DARPA contract and program managers and to provide them with the information they are looking for on a timely basis,”  Kenny said. “You need to know how to respond to opportunities.”

YFA differs from other DARPA programs because it is a broad program not intended to solve a particular problem.

“The ideas that are brought forward surprise us in many ways,” Kenny said. “The goal is to identify exciting new ideas and to inspire us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. It is a departure for our staff to be involved in such an unfocused activity. They are happy to loosen their ties and think about things in a crazier way than they normally do.”

Buxbaum is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md.

About the Author

Peter Buxbaum is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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