DARPA eyes new neural interfaces to connect warfighters hands-free to advanced military systems

March 26, 2018
ARLINGTON, Va. – U.S. military researchers are asking for industry's help in developing non-invasive or minimally invasive neural interfaces to connect warfighters directly to computers or other digital devices to enable fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems.
ARLINGTON, Va. – U.S. military researchers are asking for industry's help in developing non-invasive or minimally invasive neural interfaces to connect warfighters directly to computers or other digital devices to enable fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., issued a presolicitation Friday (HR001118S0029) for the Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology (N3) project to develop a nonsurgical neural interface system to broaden the applicability of neural interfaces to the able-bodied warfighter.

Until now, neural interfaces that connect human brains to computers and other digital equipment have been surgically invasive and used primarily to help restore functions and skills to injured warfighters. The N3 project, however, seeks to enable neural recording and stimulation with sub-millimeter spatial resolution in healthy warfighters.

Neural interfaces could enable warfighters to multitask more efficiently, and interact with autonomous and semi-autonomous systems -- particularly future systems equipped with artificial intelligence (AI), researchers say.

The problem with human-machine neural interfaces today is how surgically invasive they are. State-of-the-art high-resolution single-neuron or neural-ensemble neural interfaces are invasive, and require surgical implantation of metal or silicon-based electrodes into brain tissue or on the surface of the brain.

Related: DARPA seeks to develop implantable device to help brain-injured people regain their memories

The burden of surgery and associated risks are too high for this approach on able-bodied individuals. The N3 program aims to overcome these issues by developing a nonsurgical neural interface that is safe for human use, and that has high spatiotemporal resolution and low latency to enable function on par with current microelectrode technology.

DARPA wants the interface to be bidirectional and integrate technology for neural recording (read out) and neural stimulation (write in), and should be agnostic to military systems that would use it.

This neural interface either will be completely external to the body or will include a non surgically delivered nanotransducer that will serve as a signal transducing intermediary between neurons and the external recording and stimulating device.

The major technological challenge is to interact with neural tissue through the skull while maintaining high spatial and temporal resolution, using either a non invasive interface or minutely invasive interface.

Non invasive interfaces will involve sensors and stimulators that do not breach the skin. Minutely invasive approaches, meanwhile, will permit nonsurgical delivery of a nanotransducer delivered to neurons of interest.

Related: DARPA seeks human brain-like computers for complex signal processing and data analysis

Transducers should be small enough so as not to cause tissue damage or impede the natural neuronal circuit, and will be external to the skull. Non invasive and minutely invasive approaches will be necessary to overcome issues with signal scattering, attenuation, and signal-to-noise ratio.

The winning contractor or contractors will deliver a complete integrated bidirectional brain-machine interface system, with sensor (read) and stimulator (write) subcomponents integrated into a device external to the body. Minutely invasive approaches also will develop the external subcomponents and integrated devices that interact with the internal nanotransducers.

The N3 program will include a computational and processing unit that must provide decoded neural signals for control in a military application. It must also provide the capability to encode signals from a military application and deliver sensory feedback to the brain.

The N3 program will provide as long as four years of funding to deliver a nonsurgical neural interface system and is divided into three sequential phases: a one-year base effort, and two 18-month option periods.

Proposers must use approaches that ensure confidentiality, integrity, and availability (also known as the CIA triad) to prevent spoofing, tampering, or denial of service. It will be necessary to secure connections among the integrated device, the processing unit, and the system user’s brain.

Related: DEKA Research to develop touch-sensitive robotic artificial limbs for injured warfighters

DARPA will brief industry on the N3 program next week from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday 3 April 2018 at the DARPA Conference Center, 675 North Randolph St., in Arlington, Va. Register for the conference online no later than 28 March 2018 at https://events.sa-meetings.com/ehome/index.php?eventid=323667&.

Companies interested in participation should upload abstracts no later than 24 April 2018 to the DARPA BAA Website at https://baa.darpa.mil/my.policy. Upload full proposals to this Website no later than 5 June 2018.

Email questions or concerns to DARPA at [email protected]. More information is online at https://www.fbo.gov/spg/ODA/DARPA/CMO/HR001118S0029/listing.html.

Ready to make a purchase? Search the Military & Aerospace Electronics Buyer's Guide for companies, new products, press releases, and videos

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!