Regina Dugan: From mach-20 glider to humming bird drone (TED talk)

What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

Life gets interesting when we fail, because it’s a sign that we’ve surpassed ourselves.

Dugan was former director of DARPA, the US Government research agency. DARPA’s responsibility is to develop the technology, and not decide exactly how it will be used – that’s the military’s job.

Many times people of great intellect have said something could not be done. We could not fly, we could never make use of planes for military use, we could not go faster than the speed of sound. But these impossibilities challenge us, and we overcome them repeatedly.

It took a lot of failures for us to get into space, but once we got there we got a lot of data, which spurred on even more progress. Since we started flying, we’ve wanted to go faster and higher.

Speed is important, but so is manoeuvrability – and the Hummingbird is the only bird which can fly backwards, it can also fly up, down, sidewards, and even upside down. Now meet the Hummingbird Drone – it’s lighter than a AA battery, can fly in all directions, and has a camera on board (cue demo of the cool drone).

We cannot make new things with a fear of failure.

A Gecko can support it’s entire body weight with a single toe. Tobacco plants might be able to produce vaccines to make us healthy. It took 15 days for the gamers of FoldIt to crack a problem the scientific community were stuck on for 15 years.

There is always doubt and fear. You think somebody else is smarter, somebody else will solve that problem. Don’t – it’s just you. The people at DARPA are nerds, and they don’t fear failure.

Chris Anderson interviews Regina for a few minutes after the talk, and asks a few uncomfortable questions about the nature of DARPA’s work and the implications of such technology. Regina doesn’t look too amused by it.

(Part of TED a day for June)

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