“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” The Power of You !


Picture Credit: The TR3B from DARPA

“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” asks Regina Dugan, then director of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In this breathtaking talk she describes some of the extraordinary projects — a robotic hummingbird, a prosthetic arm controlled by thought, and, well, the internet — that her agency has created by not worrying that they might fail. (Followed by a Q&A with TED’s Chris Anderson)

Regina’s best quotations, in IAI’s opinion:

Now I should be clear, I’m not encouraging failure, I’m discouraging fear of failure. Because it’s not failure itself that constrains us. The path to truly new, never-been-done-before things always has failure along the way. We’re tested. And in part, that testing feels an appropriate part of achieving something great. Clemenceau (the post WWI Germany smasher) said, “Life gets interesting when we fail, because it’s a sign that we’ve surpassed ourselves.”

[Like IBM on the demand for mainframe computers] In 1895, Lord Kelvin declared that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible. In October of 1903, the prevailing opinion of expert aerodynamicists was that maybe in 10 million years we could build an aircraft that would fly. And two months later on December 17th, Orville Wright powered the first airplane across a beach in North Carolina. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. That was 1903.

DARPA’s hypersonic test vehicle (theFalcon) is the fastest maneuvering aircraft ever built. It’s boosted to near-space atop a Minotaur IV rocket. Now the Minotaur IV has too much impulse, so we have to bleed it off by flying the rocket at an 89 degree angle of attack for portions of the trajectory. That’s an unnatural act for a rocket. The third stage has a camera. We call it rocketcam. And it’s pointed at the hypersonic glider. This is the actual rocketcam footage from flight one. Now to conceal the shape, we changed the aspect ratio a little bit.

Hummingbird Drones: If a Mach 20 glider takes 11 minutes and 20 seconds to get from New York to Long Beach, a hummingbird would take, well, days. You see, hummingbirds are not hypersonic, but they are maneuverable. In fact, the hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backwards. It can fly up, down, forwards, backwards, even upside-down.


Picture Credit: Audubon Society’s Ruby-throated hummingbird

Gecko Man at Stanford: Failure is part of creating new and amazing things. We cannot both fear failure and make amazing new things — like a robot with the stability of a dog on rough terrain, or maybe even ice; a robot that can run like a cheetah, or climb stairs like a human with the occasional clumsiness of a human. Or perhaps, Spider Man will one day be Gecko Man. A gecko can support its entire body weight with one toe. One square millimeter of a gecko’s footpad has 14,000 hair-like structures called setae. They are used to help it grip to surfaces using intermolecular forces.

Lightning GPS for Real Time Tracking: From the smallest wisp of air to the powerful forces of nature’s storms. There are 44 lightning strikes per second around the globe. Each lightning bolt heats the air to 44,000 degrees Fahrenheit — hotter than the surface of the Sun. What if we could use these electromagnetic pulses as beacons, beacons in a moving network of powerful transmitters? Experiments suggest that lightning could be the next GPS.

The Power of You (video): Now I want to say, this is not easy. It’s hard to hold onto this feeling, really hard. I guess in some way, I sort of believe it’s supposed to be hard. Doubt and fear always creep in. We think someone else, someone smarter than us, someone more capable, someone with more resources will solve that problem. But there isn’t anyone else; there’s just you. And if we’re lucky, in that moment, someone steps into that doubt and fear, takes a hand and says, “Let me help you believe.”

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