Cerf: ARPA-E Has Promise for DARPA-Like Results

Posted July 27, 2012 at 4:13pm

In February 1958, soon after the launch of the Soviet Sputnik in October 1957, the Advanced Research Projects Agency was created by law and a presidential Department of Defense directive. Now called DARPA (D for “Defense”), it has a long history of remarkable innovations.

I served as a program manager and principal scientist in DARPA from 1976 to 1982, and my team’s research laid the technical foundation of what is now called the Internet that we all use today. During the past 50 years, others like me joined DARPA and produced innovations ranging from global positioning satellites to stealth aircraft, robotics, self-driving vehicles and many others.

Many of these innovations have touched our lives in ways that we could not have imagined more than 30 years ago and have had massive effect on America’s economy and security that could not have been predicted either. So what is the magic behind DARPA and can it be replicated in other sectors such as energy, where we face enormous challenges? I believe ARPA-E has the same basic ingredients as DARPA and could potentially create some “internets” in energy. Let me explain.

What was and is unique about DARPA is that it is a relatively small government agency that recruits highly talented program managers from the technical community for three to six years and empowers them with resources and decision-making to intensely focus on “DARPA-hard” technical problems that may have high risk but huge payoff if successful.

It is the persistent, long-term risk taking and investment and the philosophy of relatively brief but extremely intense, smart program management that distinguishes this unusual agency within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Interestingly, this is not a government laboratory. All the work is done through grants and contracts to research universities and private-sector organizations. DARPA often works with other government agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, NASA and the military departments and their associated research agencies. This collaborative mixture has produced some stunning results that have benefited not only the military but the private sector as well.

The success of DARPA has spawned similar agencies in the Department of Energy (ARPA-E), the intelligence community (IARPA) and the Department of Homeland Security (HSARPA). ARPA-E is relatively new. It was created in 2007 but received its first funding in 2009 through the economic stimulus. The reauthorization of the America Competes Act in 2010 codified some changes to the agency.

It is vital to recognize and remember that some of the hardest problems facing America are associated with energy.

The United States still imports almost half the oil it uses. That fact alone contributes to our massive trade deficit to say nothing of the effect on national security.

We must innovate to create alternatives that reduce our dependence on oil imports, reduce the cost of energy and contribute to the containment of global warming. Renewable sources can address this, but they need to be inexpensive and scalable, and we need to integrate these sources into an energy infrastructure.

We have an aging power generation and electricity distribution infrastructure that needs to be modernized. Renewable electricity sources are also discontinuous. We need high-performance electricity-storage technology to cope with that. The sources are distributed and we need distributed control systems to manage flows. In short, we need to reinvent the way in which energy is sourced, consumed and managed — we need a sort of energy Internet. These are the reasons ARPA-E was created in the mold of DARPA.

A scientist or engineer with a “bee in the bonnet,” funding and freedom is an unbeatable combination for tackling really hard problems.

If we are to harvest from ARPA-E the kinds of benefits that DARPA has produced during the past 50 years, we must provide patient and persistent funding, staffing and an array of high-payoff challenges to stimulate the research community.

It is sometimes tempting to measure progress in the short term to justify longer-term expenditures. It is here that we may encounter the most serious risk of all: failure to provide support for serious and long-term research and development. Moreover, for the results of research to become useful, it will be important to pay close attention to facilitating the absorption of research results into the private sector. DARPA programs have been structured to allow military departments to participate in early research efforts and to take up new technology as it becomes practical. A similar practice will help to deliver the benefits of ARPA-E research into the energy economy.

As plans for future years develop within the Office of Management and Budget, executive branch departments and Congressional committees, the importance of long-term focus on the really hard energy problems cannot be overemphasized. We have it within our means to create an energy web that can meet our 21st-century needs. Persistence is needed and will pay off in the end.

Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google. He is recognized as one of the fathers of the Internet for his work at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.