The news: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for someone to build them a portable, self-deploying shield. More or less, they want a can that could expand into an impenetrable wall.
If you've ever played Halo, this should sound pretty familiar.
Image Credit: Youtube
DARPA issued a request for information for the project, titled "Block Access to Deny Entry" or BlockADE. Essentially, they're looking for vendors who either have or are capable of developing materials that can aid in the production of the final project.
The technical details: It can't be tossed from your hand — it will be up to 0.3 meters in diameter and potentially weigh 300 lbs — and it won't use energized particles. Furthermore, the finished "can" probably won't be used to spontaneously shield troops from explosives or bullets. But it would be completely autonomous, requiring only the push of a button or yank of a pin.
DARPA says the device should have "sufficient properties to block or slow access to a specified area (e.g., mechanical strength for solid barriers, stickiness or sharpness for web or briar-like barriers, capacity to self-weld or self-assemble, etc.)." They're also looking for materials and device concepts that are capable of forming structures "several orders of magnitude" larger than the packaging.
While the minimum requirement of such a device would be to slow people with access to hand tools like saws and axes, "ballistic resistance" would be a big plus for any potential design. DARPA envisions the device being used to deny access to munitions stockpiles or other things they don't want to fall into enemy hands, saying they want something that could "fill a room and delineate an area."
DARPA says that the device could have peaceful applications, such as building temporary shelters for people rendered homeless by disasters. Perhaps variants of the technology might also have some ominous uses, like dispersing waves of riot control foam.
Will it actually happen? Maybe, maybe not, or maybe in a decade or two. DARPA requests for information are just that — requests for people who think they can build a specific device or piece of equipment to let DARPA know. To put this in perspective, DARPA has also issued requests for information for esoteric things like "cortical processors" or intelligent software capable of spotting "anomalous behavior" on secure computer networks.
While they're generally only interested in what's plausible, ideas that sound good on paper might turn out to be impossible with current technology, of limited use in practice or just pushed aside when the agency loses interest or the bidding is too high.
That's not to say that DARPA isn't serious about bringing theoretical technology that's equal parts amazing and terrifying into reality. Just take their buzzing, kick-proof robotic hound as an example:
One thing all DARPA projects have in common is silly acronyms. BlockADE is pretty straightforward for an agency that regularly names potential projects things like "Suspected Malicious Insider Threat Elimination" (SMITE) or "Clear, Lipid-exchanged, Acrylamide-hybridized Rigid, Imaging/immunostaining compatible, Tissue hydrogel" (CLARITY). One project involving sub-wavelength lasers was even called NACHOS.
As for our wall in a can, one io9 commenter noted DARPA might already have a potential competitor for condensed tactical needs: