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Pentagon taps students to build robots, drones

Scott Beale/laughingsquid.comMAKE magazine founder Dale Dougherty

With an eye toward revolutionizing how defense systems and vehicles are made, the Pentagon has tapped a team of Bay Area-based scientists, engineers and hackers to create a program that will enlist California high school students to build robots, drones and other low- and medium-tech gadgets.

The Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has awarded $2 million of a $10 million program to two outfits that have joined forces to develop a pilot project in 10 schools.

Part of the agency’s lauded Adaptive Vehicle Make program, which has employed university-based teams to build new "cyber-physical" systems, the latest effort wants to cut down on manufacturing time. Dubbed Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach, the program hopes to develop and motivate the next generation of chic geeks to collaborate through social networks to design and develop new vehicles.

The overall goal is to expand to 1,000 high schools, both in and out of the country, said Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE magazine and one of the directors of the pilot program, along with Saul Griffith of San Francisco-based design team Otherlab.

“To me, this is more than just introducing kids to manufacturing, but to get them into science and technology, where they get to do stuff,” Dougherty said. “The kinds of stuff we do in ‘making’ are paths to the future, not paths to sidelines.”

The team has two years to reach the initial goal of 10 schools, then two more years to expand first to 100 schools then 1,000. The Defense Department wants unlimited rights to everything the students build, including all algorithms, source code, equipment and test use cases.

A prototype program – the pilot of the pilot – launched last fall at Analy High School in Sonoma County, which Dougherty’s children attended. DARPA does not fund that program. He said the team plans to take the project to roughly 10 high schools in Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere.

kali9/istockphoto.com

Casey Shea, a teacher at the Sebastopol high school, said 28 students participate in Project Make. The program employs a range of low-tech to high-tech skills, from construction to design and computer programming.

“It’s a great range, and the idea is to take the skills and run with them,” he said.

While the defense funding has raised some eyebrows among hackers, who have voiced concerns in various Internet groups and forums, other government watchdogs have said the program seems more beneficial than insidious.

"Anything that helps high schoolers do cool things with science is a good thing," said Rebecca Jeschke of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Technology is cool."

Dougherty said he recognizes that there are some concerns among hackers about taking Pentagon money and using it for schools. But he underscored that the students will not build weapons for the military.

“There’s a small segment (of the hacker community) that is uncomfortable with the fact that we took DARPA funding to do education work,” he said. “It’s naive to think the world of tech is not engaged with the military on every level and vice versa.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said the Adaptive Vehicle Make program employed teams to build navigation systems, rather than “cyber-physical” systems. The earlier version also did not specify that Analy High School’s prototype program did not receive DARPA funding.

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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