Energing Technology

New biotech office to integrate biology into national defense

DARPA biotechnology illustration

Defense technology, which traditionally conjures up images of tanks, satellites and missiles, will soon begin integrating biotechnology into the mix.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has announced the creation of a new Biological Technologies Office to explore the power of biological systems. The office seeks to integrate disciplines such as computer science, microsystems, sensor design, and neuroscience, saying that biology is one of the “core sciences”  in defense technology’s future.

“The Biological Technologies Office will advance and expand on a number of earlier DARPA programs that made preliminary inroads into the bio-technological frontier,” said Geoff Ling, named by DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar to be the first director of BTO.

The creation of the new office will transfer some Defense Sciences and Microsystems Technology offices’ projects over to the BTO, but will also include new opportunities.

“Before BTO, DARPA had a handful of biologists, neuroscientists, engineers and the like, interested in synthesizing their work but distributed across different offices,” Ling said. “Now we’re under one roof, so to speak, and looking to attract a new community of scholars, who will bring a host of new ideas at the intersection of traditional and emerging disciplines.”

BTO research will focus on three primary areas of interest – none of which are offensive in nature.

The first seeks to restore and maintain warfighter abilities, finding ways to improve the health and well-being of service members through products such as neural interfaces and advanced prosthetics. The new office will also focus on harnessing biological systems to create products that will surpass chemical and manufactured solutions. Finally, some programs will seek to apply biological complexity at scale, examining biological systems across spatial, physical, and temporal scales.

Some programs that fall under the office include:

  • The Living Foundries program looks to create a biologically based manufacturing platform to provide access to new materials, capabilities and manufacturing paradigms.
  • The Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program will use neuroscience and data processing to help treat neuropsychological illnesses in service members.
  • The Strategic Social Interaction Modules (SSIM) program seeks to develop training methods that would allow soldiers to effectively communicate and interact in unfamiliar social encounters.
  • The Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program seeks to develop and test an implantable neural device to restore memories to individuals.

A full list of the programs that fall under the Biological Technology Office can be found on the DARPA website.

DARPA is cognizant of the possible legal, ethical and social dilemmas that could arise from the development of biological technologies and has stated that the agency regularly engages with academia to discuss relevant ethical, legal and social issues.

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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