DARPA’s Regina Dugan Talks Nerds, Failure and Flight at TED

Posted by · February 29, 2012 1:52 pm

Move over Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. Regina Dugan is my new hero.  The director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) won my heart and kicked off day two of the TED Conference by instructing everyone to make sure they have a nerd in their life. (I married a nuclear engineer, so I think I’m set.) Nerd love aside, the thesis of Dugan’s TEDTalk was that life gets interesting when we are not afraid of failure. She cited the long history of man’s attempts at flight as a prime example:

English: This was the most up-to-date DARPA lo...“Since we took to the sky, we have wanted to fly faster and farther. At first, we wanted to fly transonically, then supersonically and now hypersonically,” Dugan said. “Amazing, never been done before things require that you fly, but when learning to fly, you sometimes fail. Failure is part of creating. We cannot fear failure and create new and amazing things.” (Just so we’re clear, she was speaking both literally and metaphorically here.)

DARPA has a hypersonic test vehicle of their own. It’s the fastest test vehicle ever built, and though it has only flown twice to date, it has collected more hypersonic flight data than other people or planes have been able to collect in 30 years of ground testing. During one of those two flights, DARPA’s test vehicle achieved three minutes of fully controlled aerodynamic flight at Mach 20 speed. To put Mach 20 speed in perspective, Dugan said it would take you 11 minutes and 20 seconds to fly from New York City to Long Beach at Mach 20 speed.

Dugan also showed the audience DARPA’s mechanical hummingbird, which weighs less than one double A battery and is equipped with a camera.

“In defense, we focus so much on being stealth, but when things look natural, you also don’t see them,” Dugan said.  So, if I’m getting this straight, natural is the new stealth.  I like it.

Some of the other amazing initiatives DARPA is undertaking include manufacturing mechanical structures that are lighter than styrofoam, letting human thought control robots (Dugan showed a video of a man controlling a mechanical hand by using brainwaves) and creating millions of doses of vaccine in weeks (not months like they traditionally take) from tobacco plants. Oh, and did I mention the robots they’ve made that run like a cheetah, have the stability of a dog and climb stairs like a human?

And who are the magical people at DARPA who create and discover all these wonders? None other than the nerds.

“We all have nerd power, sometimes we just forget. There was a time when we were all good at stuff. Not afraid of failure,” Dugan said, flashing pictures of children on the screen in back of her. “Scientists and engineers can indeed change the world. So can you. You were born to do it.”

So what about you, EE Tech News readers? What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

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