Darpa’s HTV-2 was a drone aircraft shaped like the nib of a fountain pen that flew faster than anything ever built by humans. But during its 2011 test flight its metal skin melted under the atmospheric friction of 13,000-mph flight. It crashed into the Pacific Ocean nine minutes after takeoff.
That made it a long shot for Darpa’s annual Program of the Year award a few months later. But when Regina Dugan announced the winner, there it was, the HTV-2. The nine-minute flop had somehow become a winner. It sent shock waves through Darpa, but the message was clear: “You dared to do something great,” says Dan Kaufman, director of Darpa’s Information Innovation Office. The reaction in the room, where 100 military alpha geeks—all Darpa personnel—had gathered for the award presentation? “Outrageous applause,” Kaufman remembers. “It was amazing. People were so psyched.”
Regina Dugan spends a lot of time thinking about failure at her current job. She’s the leader of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, and she’s pursuing a lot of high-risk projects. She did that at Darpa too, which hires people for short-term jobs in a wide range of futuristic areas—things like analog computer chips, open-source armed vehicles, and robotic hummingbirds. ATAP is borrowing from the Darpa model and has kick-started about a dozen projects since its launch in 2012. We’re not talking about AT&T Labs–style “dream up something new” operation here. ATAP grabs exciting new technologies by the collar and gives them a quick shove into the real world. All the work is done in two-year spurts, with help from hundreds of contractors; if the project seems promising, it could get re-upped for another two years. “It creates a lot of urgency in projects, and I believe that’s essential for innovation,” Dugan says. “One week of their time is 1 percent of their entire duration in ATAP. That makes them impatient with bureaucracy and process. And with a small enough group, you can start to strip away those things and go really fast.”
Failure is going to happen when you’re building things on the very edge of what’s possible. Dugan expects that. But “it’s more important to fail at something that matters than to succeed at something that doesn’t,” she says.
The dozen or so projects coming out of Dugan’s group are more narrowly focused than its R&D big brother, Google’s X Labs, and they’re all focused on mobile devices and services. In fact, ATAP started off as part of Google’s Motorola handset group, and Google held on to it when it sold the division to Lenovo last year. So far it has revealed Project Ara, a modular phone that snaps together like Legos, and Project Tango, a tablet that uses a battery of sensors to build 3-D maps of wherever you are, much like a personal version of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover. It was just spun out of ATAP—a big step toward becoming a full-fledged Google product—and could be used by developers to create a whole new breed of augmented reality applications.
There are fewer than 100 people on Dugan’s team, but they manage a small army of contractors. It’s a global effort. “We have contracted with 483 entities in 25 countries on five continents,” Dugan says.
They can push back against the bosses and the bean counters.
If you’re going to build something mind-blowing in just two short years, you’re probably going to have to butt heads. “The reason you have an organization like ATAP is to create tension,” Dugan says. That means you need someone who will rethink conventional ways of doing things. Her project leads typically aren’t 20-something whiz kids but rather midcareer folks who can hold their own (kinda like Dugan). Many of them—at Darpa and ATAP—have been PhDs with five or 10 years of real-world job experience. They get the technology, but they can also push back against the bosses and bean counters.
Dugan has a reputation for intensity. A mechanical engineer, she spent her first tour at Darpa, back in the 1990s, building explosive detectors and riding minesweeping vehicles in Africa. Soon after being appointed Darpa’s first female director, she shipped off to Afghanistan to see what the agency might contribute to the troops on the ground. She is unrelenting—a show-up-early, email-late-at-night, work-on-weekends manager—pushing her staff to succeed in something that’s really great. Or fail at something that really matters.
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