SAN JOSE, Calif. — Following on the heels of the Army, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has started its own "apps" program designed to speed innovative software that can be downloaded to smart phones and computers used by U.S. military personnel. A recent call for proposals resulted in an "overwhelming response" and may have broken a record for the number of proposals received at DARPA for a program, said Mari Maeda, a project manager at the agency.
Modeling the applications that are created by software developers for the iPhone, Android and other popular consumer smart phones, the Army earlier this year launched an "Apps for the Army" contest that called for members of the military to submit ideas.
DARPA is expanding the "transformative apps program" to any service, and will concentrate on software for war fighters involved in counterinsurgencies. Maeda said she wants to also get way from the normal way of doing business. DARPA usually takes three to four months to select a winning proposal, another three to four months to negotiate a contract, and then sticks with the vendor for three to five years. That process will be sped up considerably, she suggested.
The program will be a test case of "war fighter empowered acquisition," she said. Many details have not yet been worked out, she said at the Milcom conference here. "It's not people like program managers or acquisition managers who come up with the official requirements," she said. Those serving in the field will have a stronger say in what DARPA selects for the new program, she added.
"We are open to funding a lot of apps," she said. Like the Army program, DARPA wanted to work with traditional as well as commercial software developers.
Some of the potential applications include: blue-force tracking, speech recognition, two-way speech translation, cultural training, human terrain mapping, mission planning and biometrics. They could be intended for mobile or fixed devices, she said.
The idea has its roots in the mostly well received tactical ground reporting system, or TIGR, a DARPA application that is now widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan. TIGR overlays intelligence gathered by soldiers in the field onto maps. For example, data can show mission planners where recent roadside bombs have been found or where potential friends or foes live. Small units prior to leaving a forward operating base can check for any recent incidents on the map before leaving to patrol a neighborhood.
Despite feedback from soldiers that the system was "extremely useful," Maeda said DARPA received a lot of "bureaucratic push back" when it first began deploying the system in 2006 to 2007.
"Every six months or so we still get push back just because we're not a program of record," she said. Meanwhile, soldiers have been asking DARPA to upgrade the TIGR system with new features. Because her team at DARPA is small, it has not been able to respond as quickly as it would like.
All that "push back" has been over only one new application, she noted. Now, in what she describes as a bit of "masochism," her team will try to proceed to rapidly field several new applications.