No Death Star?

DARPA’s Wildest Military Projects (PHOTOS)

The government's plans for virtual-reality contact lenses, Iron Man suits, and more.


LucasFilm/Everett Collection

The White House is not in the business of blowing up planets. This policy is clarified in an official statement explaining that it will not cave to a “We the People” petition calling for the federal government to build a battle-ready spaceship modeled after the Star Wars Death Star. (Among the reasons: the $850,000,000,000,000,000 cost and an ideological stance against interplanetary destruction.) While most are getting a good laugh from the petition, which was signed by nearly 35,000 people, it wouldn’t be crazy to bet that someone at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) seriously considered it. After all, the Department of Defense agency is developing tiny hummingbird robot spies, virtual-reality contact lenses, and a slew of other projects seemingly lifted straight of a sci-fi novel. Here are a few unclassified endeavors.


Nano Air Vehicle (NAV)

It will “push the limits of aerodynamics,” “navigate in complex environments,” and “provide warfighters with unprecedented capability during urban operations.” Also, it’s a hummingbird. The Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) is miniscule—just 15 centimeters and 20 grams—but is capable of flying robotically and performing reconnaissance missions with the nimble dexterity of a hummingbird. DARPA may not be in the business of replicating monstrous space ships, but it is in the business of developing teeny, tiny robot spies.


Z-Man “Geckskins”

If lizards can scale walls without ladders, then shouldn’t U.S. soldiers be able to, too? Yet another military tool modeled after Mother Nature, the Z-Man “Geckskin” allows soldiers to scale vertical surfaces as if they were geckos. Synthetically fabricated and modeled after geckos’ own biological advantages, the “Geckskin” uses various adhesive pads to allow the user to climb all different kinds of surfaces without the cumbersome and constraining use of ropes, ladders, and other tools, all while carrying a load of up to 660 pounds.


Virtual-Reality Contact Lenses

Gone are the days of those dorky virtual-reality helmets. DARPA researchers are developing contact lenses that double as virtual-reality displays, supplanting a wearer’s normal vision with virtual- and augmented-reality images that appear digitally near the eye. The lens allows for the ability to view digital displays and information while still being able to interact with the environment—in other words, someone can look at virtual-reality images while walking around without bumping into things.



It’s hard to decide which is the cooler, this project’s full name, Magento Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition, or its acronym, MAHEM. The idea behind the MAHEM project is to revolutionize the way missiles are formed. Current technology requires inefficient chemical explosive energy to manufacture self-forging warheads. MAHEM advancements will make it possible to create multiple self-forging warheads from a single charge. The warheads can be packaged into missiles and projectiles, essentially creating deadly molten-metal-filled missiles.


FANG Challenge

If at first you don’t succeed … enlist the help of all of America? That’s what DARPA did when the $13 billion armored, amphibious tank it developed was deemed a failure and scrapped. The agency then released open-source software that would allow anyone to design and run virtual tests on their own amphibious tank and created a contest in which the person with the best design would receive $1 million. Dubbed the FANG (Fast, Adaptable, Next-Generation Ground Vehicle) challenge, the goal of the contest is to yield a design so good that DARPA will build out the winner.


Robotic Mule

A fair amount of donkeys will soon be out of work. DARPA is testing a robotic mule that actually improves on its animal-kingdom counterpart. The LS3 (Legged Squad Support System) is able to respond to voice commands, follow humans, and navigate tricky terrain—and do it all while carrying up to 400 pounds of supplies over 20 miles without human intervention or rest. Still, the device isn’t perfect—though the mules can traverse nearly any environment, journeys through deep snow are still out of the question.


Sarcos XOS 2 Exoskeleton

A real-life Iron Man? That’s essentially what the Sarcos XOS 2 military exoskeleton is: a robotic suit that enables its wearer to lift heavier objects and move faster while reducing strain and exertion. Much like the suit worn by Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man films, it still allows for agile and graceful movement—kicking a soccer ball or climbing stairs, for example—with ease.


Triple Target Terminator Missile

Yes, DARPA actually named one of its projects in development the Terminator. The Triple Target Terminator (T3) program is working on a supersonic, long-range missile that is capable of engaging—and destroying—three different kinds of targets. The new utility weapon is able to take out aircraft, cruise missiles, and ground targets—a three-in-one weapon. 



In its continued effort to make war fighting just like a video game, DARPA is working on a project that would make lasers weapons shot from aircraft even more precise and destructive. The High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) improves on the military’s already state-of-the-art lasers by developing a laser weapon system that is 10 times smaller and lighter, and therefore more practical for use in tactical aircraft to defend against surface-to-air threats. Plus, it will boast a whopping 150 kilowatts of power.