A Darpa manager talks about unmanned aircraft, working on a job you can’t finish, and working for the government.
Edited by Victoria Burt
Darpa is an agency of the Department of Defense (DOD) that has a reputation for fielding a lot of gee-whiz projects. It is responsible for developing new technology for the military. GPS, the stealth fighter, and gallium-arsenide semiconductors all track their origins back to Darpa projects. Small wonder, then, that engineers speak of Darpa jobs with reverent tones. But what does a Darpa engineer really do? We asked Dan Newman, who before coming to Darpa as program manager worked on helicopter design at Boeing and taught mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
What’s it like to work for Darpa? Everyone at Darpa is temporary. The agency is designed so all program managers, office directors, and the agency director only work in the organization for a short time. This means everyone is very focused on technology. Often they start programs and those are handed off to others who refine the program as they see fit. A typical stint at Darpa is four to six years. Many program managers are on loan from government agencies or educational institutions.
What is your biggest technical challenge? Because we are working in new areas of research, there’s no intuition, we don’t have experience or enough data to truly understand all the nuances. Integrating new technologies into a product that the customer has to rely on is the hardest challenge.
What do you like best about your job? The best part of the job is the opportunity to find new solutions to current problems and new applications for emerging technologies.
What do you like least about your job? There is always paperwork required to ensure we are doing due diligence. It slows everyone down to document what they are doing but it is critical so they can hand the project off.
What is a typical work day? I review the status of current programs and make sure they meet technical goals. I track their cost and schedule, and review new technologies and ideas. I write proposals to the agency to secure investment, and spend a lot of time with the DOD. I look at their capability gaps and find technologies to fill those gaps, making sure they are aware of technologies that Darpa is pursuing. Often the DOD doesn’t know how they will use the technologies we are developing.
What are you working on now? We’ve developing and demonstrating several unmanned aircraft programs. One is a small backpack-size vertical takeoff and landing autonomous aircraft. Another is a long-endurance aircraft designed to launch and operate for five years autonomously, without refueling. We also have a program to develop the technologies for dramatically quieter helicopter rotor systems.
How many people do you work with? Each program manager in the government program office is supported by a team of contractors. So in a large office there is a small cadre of government employees. The program manager is often an agent from another organization in the military that has some connection to the eventual customer. There are representatives from the military working with them to ensure coordination as they develop the technology toward the ultimate application.
What is your engineering background? I’ve spent 25 years in engineering. I have an undergrad degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell, and a graduate degree in aerospace from the University of Maryland. I also taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
What attracted you to engineering? The opportunity to be creative, to the fix the ills of the world, and to make things easier and better. I have also always been interested in vehicles, platforms, machines, kinematics, and tinkering.
What traits and habits help you excel in engineering? Engineering is a balancing act to find a system that best meets the constraints and mitigates all the issues, challenges, and costs. You have to know when good enough is good enough.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in pursuing engineering? If you get the bug, it’s amazing. There are so many different disciplines and so much good you can do and enjoy it at the same time.
Name: Daniel Newman
Title: Program Manager, Tactical Technologies Office
Organization: The Defense Advanced Research Agency (Darpa)
Location: Arlington, Va.
Last book he read: Engineering Creativity by Tom Hanson
Hobbies: Playing ice hockey and coaching baseball
Work description in one sentence: “My job is to remove technical hurdles.”