Last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its plans to award money to people who can transform their common household items — electronics, chemicals, 3D-printed parts, etc. — into improvised weapons.
The agency is attempting to adopt the typical “inventor’s eye” (albeit, also a terrorist’s one) to assess how seemingly harmless technologies can be converted into serious national security threats — and, more importantly, to defend against them.
“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,” DARPA stated in its press release. “Increasingly, however, off-the-shelf equipment…features highly sophisticated components, which resourceful adversaries can modify or combine to create novel and unanticipated security threats.”
DARPA’s program, dubbed Improv, invites engineers, biologists, information technologists, and skilled hobbyists to present their “good” bad ideas, which DARPA will assess and (if selected) develop from concept to working prototype within about 90 days.
Of course, participants, in their quest to construct that bomb from used pinball machine parts, must still stay “within the bounds of local, state, and federal laws.” (Not that that would stop a terrorist, but hey—DARPA can only condone Red Teaming so far.)
To enter, interested proposers must first submit the plan for their prototype — and potentially receive $40,000 if DARPA digs it. Next, a smaller number of candidates will be chosen to build their device with $70,000 in possible funding. Finally, top candidates will enter the program’s final phase, which will include a deep analysis of the invention and military demo.
“DARPA often looks at the world from the point of view of our potential adversaries to predict what they might do with available technology,” said John Main, Improv’s program manager. “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.”