2012-05-31

Co.Exist

The Military's Futuristic Projects Get A Home In The Maker Movement

DARPA, the Defense Department group that works on the most far-out weapons, is teaming up with TechShop, a paradise for tinkerers and home engineers.

Battery-powered human exoskeletons, acoustic gunshot location detection systems, and flying armored cars: These are just some of the projects that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) works on. An agency in the U.S. Department of Defense that focuses on futuristic technology, DARPA has recently decided that crowdsourcing ideas is an efficient way to speed up development of new technology—last year, the agency called on the public to help design military vehicles.

Now DARPA is really embracing the DIY movement. Last week, the agency announced that it’s teaming up with TechShop, a national chain of DIY workshop spaces (it’s where Square’s iPhone credit card reader was developed). DARPA will fund two new TechShop locations—in the Washington, D.C. metro area and Pittsburgh (presumably due to its proximity to Carnegie Mellon).

In exchange, DARPA staff will have off-hours access to TechShop to work on the Instant Foundry Adaptive through Bits (iFAB) manufacturing program, which aims to find new ways to quickly reprogram and reconfigure manufacturing technology for military vehicles. If successful, iFAB will allow the military to use a single facility that can be quickly reconfigured to manufacture a variety of vehicles, parts, and tools.

The agency also sees TechShop as a venue for potential participants in its crowdsourcing challenges. "DARPA has this ongoing open hardware effort similar to the Local Motors challenge," says Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop. "They anticipate that some of the folks participating in those challenges aren’t going to have access to machine shops, facilities, and so forth."

But, says Hatch, there’s no reason for regular TechShop members to hide out and spy on the DARPA team. "There’s nothing secret about the activity. They’re not working on secret weapons programs." No, the DARPA staff simply wants what other TechShop members enjoy—the chance to use plasma cutters, welders, 3-D printers, and any number of other tools to perfect their projects. They won’t get any special equipment; just what TechShop normally offers.

"Supporting initiatives that expand the number and diversity of talent contributing to the nation’s defense is critical to DARPA’s efforts in advanced manufacturing," DARPA director Kaigham Gabriel explained in a statement. "The resources made available through this effort enables more people to ‘make,’—the DNA of creativity and innovation."

As part of the DARPA partnership, TechShop also will offer 2,000 one-year memberships (these normally cost over $1,000 a pop) to military veterans.

Hatch believes that the maker movement—helped by partnerships like the one with DARPA—is on the upswing. "We’ve been at the bottom end of the cycle of time where making things physically wasn’t as interesting as making Facebook apps. Now that the battle for eyeballs is essentially over, what are we going to do next? I now believe we’re not going to be battling over eyeballs as much as we’re going to be trying to figure out how to improve our physical lives."

While rapid manufacturing of military vehicles may not actually improve our daily lives, some of the other projects coming out of the new TechShop locations may one day be able to do just that.

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