What is the Advanced Research Projects Agency?

P.M. Willers

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) is a U.S. government agency created in 1958. Originally created within the Department of Defense, the agency’s goal was to invest in and fund projects that developed new technology. More specifically, the agency’s primary aim was to enable the United States to lead the world in technological research.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have worked with the Department of Defense on advanced research projects.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have worked with the Department of Defense on advanced research projects.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency was created shortly after the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. At this time, the leaders of the United States were devoted to establishing the nation as the best in the world in the field of technology. The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik bred new eagerness in the pursuit of such technological advances. The agency was designed to support this goal and provide special funding opportunities to new projects pertaining to technology.

ARPANET implemented the type of packet switching network that would come to dominate communications around the world.
ARPANET implemented the type of packet switching network that would come to dominate communications around the world.

The ARPA was first created within the Department of Defense. Since its creation, the agency’s name has been changed several times, and the agency was known in late 2010 as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Along with this naming refinement, similar agencies have been created in other federal departments. Each of these agencies has the same goal: to develop higher technology.

Newer Advanced Research Projects Agencies include an agency within the Department of Energy and within the Department of Homeland Security. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) was first authorized in 2007 and works to provide funding for those working toward technological advances in energy. Funding became available through the ARPA-E in 2009. The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) works to support advanced technological developments within the field of homeland security.

The Department of Defense also had an additional agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). This agency was created by the ARPA of the Department of Defense along with a research team of scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ARPANET was a packet-switching network that played an integral role in the development of today’s Internet and worldwide computer networking.

If interested in applying for funding through one of these agencies, it is important to first educate and familiarize yourself with the various agencies. Investigate the primary goals of the agency from which you hope to receive funding and learn about past projects that have been awarded funding. Each agency has a website that outlines project submission guidelines, timeline, and other stipulations for applying for funding.

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Discussion Comments


@SkyWhisperer - Personally, I’m less interested in driverless vehicles (although they are certainly practical) than in more advanced stuff like artificial intelligence software. This is where we should be pouring all of our defense and technology investment spending. Come to think of it, driverless vehicles probably use some form of artificial intelligence themselves.

But I’m thinking of the kind of technology that can be used for robots and computers. I hope that one day we can build androids – currently the stuff of science fiction – that can interact with humans in a completely natural way, serving as true companions.

I realize that there is some work in robot technology being done, but from the prototypes I’ve seen, I think we have a long way to go.


@NathanG - Yeah, I’ve heard about some of the contracts that government agencies give out to private companies to improve technology. I think the majority of defense contracts operate this way in fact, with contracts being doled out to private bidders.

While I don’t believe DARPA has ever requested far out technologies, they do have some interesting annual contests for innovative ideas in automotive design. I saw a television program that talked about an annual Grand Challenge DARPA puts out for driverless vehicles.

They’ve been doing this for several years now, and it’s a contest for anyone who can build and operate a completely driverless vehicle that can navigate a 60 mile course, obeying all traffic signals, without any accidents and in 6 hours. The grand prize one year was $2,000,000, given to a joint venture between one of the big automotive firms and a major university.


@hamje32 - I don’t think that this agency operates with any black budget. It is a formally recognized organization and so there’s not much in the way of secrecy in terms of its budget.

Otherwise, funding research projects would be somewhat difficult; they would be outside the domain of congressional approval and so forth, and it appears that ARPA operates within full purview of the federal government.

Some of their research projects are quite public, in fact, like recent initiatives for developing clean energy and bio fuels. ARPA is awarding this money to private companies to accelerate the growth towards a green economy.


I once saw a television program where some conspiracy theorists were alleging that this secret defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was involved in some hi-tech technology like teleportation, the stuff you see in science fiction movies.

I took it with a grain of salt, but it appears that if any agency could push the limits of scientific knowledge, this would be the one. I had no idea that they basically laid the framework for the Internet or that they were involved in the space program or other hi-tech projects.

I wonder if these are the guys that operate with the mythical black box budgets that no one really sees.

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