By From the Lowell Sun
By TOM SPOTH, Sun Staff
LOWELL -- The last time Anthony Tether visited UMass Lowell, researchers at the university ended up getting a $1.2 million grant to study tissue regeneration.
Yesterday, UMass Lowell faculty presented six promising technologies to Tether, in the hopes that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which he heads, might come through with funding once again.
Better known as DARPA, Tether's agency, part of the Department of Defense, is well-known for taking far-out technologies and making them reality. At a luncheon attended by university staff, U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan and numerous local companies, Tether yesterday talked about DARPA's latest breakthroughs.
Topics on the front burner at DARPA include networking, prosthetics, alternative energy, space dominance and air vehicles. Tether made reference to a new "phraselator" that can immediately translate spoken English into 16 foreign languages. He also mentioned that DARPA is looking into using beer-making equipment to produce mass quantities of vaccines to combat bioterrorism -- making vaccine is a simple fermentation process, he pointed out.
Tether also highlighted another DARPA project that earned gasps of disbelief, then applause, from the audience. He showed a brief video of a monkey obtaining food by manipulating a mechanical arm -- with its mind.
Which, if any, of the UMass Lowell projects will become DARPA's next brainchild?
Researchers made their case to Tether and other DARPA staff members in brief presentations, delivered in a small classroom before the luncheon.
The UML staff tossed around terms like "hyperspectral imaging," "quantum dot" and "negative refraction." All projects had real-world military applications, though. One, produced by UML's robotics lab, allowed soldiers to easily guide unmanned ground vehicles remotely with Nintendo-style controllers. Another uses "nanofibers" that can be woven into military uniforms to sense toxic materials or explosives.
Chemistry professor Kenneth Marx and biology professor Susan Braunhut offered up a "microcanary," an oscillating quartz crystal intended to do the same thing for warfighters that canaries did for coal miners -- detect a threat before it becomes deadly.
"We need funding to make the device portable and remote," Braunhut said.
She and Marx, working as part of a six-institution consortium, had previously received the $1.2 million DARPA grant to study the regeneration of lost limbs in mammals.
Nanotechnology, the technology at the heart of much of the research going on at UML, was a buzzword yesterday. An $80 million nanotechnology manufacturing research center, partially funded by the state, is on tap for the city.
"The promise of nanotechnology simply cannot be realized until each individual discovery or device can be manufactured in a practical way," Meehan said. "It is crucially important that we continue to strengthen the relationship between DARPA and UMass Lowell and the many companies in the region."
Meehan said UML has received more than $200 million in federal grants and contracts in the last 10 years, much of it coming from the Department of Defense.
Tether said nearly all of DARPA's $3 billion budget goes to research being done at private companies and universities. The agency has only about 240 employees, 150 of whom are program managers who stay on for six-year terms.
"They are really very strange people," Tether said with a grin. "They all have one thing in common -- they have an idea they can't get done anywhere else."
Tether said the agency is always looking for new blood and fresh ideas.
"If any of you have an idea you can't get done anywhere else, or you know someone like that, please send them to me," he said.
Judging from the line of people waiting to talk to Tether after the event, some attendees may have fit that description.