The only way to learn to fly is to fly: Regina Dugan at TED2012

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Photos: James Duncan Davidson

“Be nice to nerds…” As the opening slide from a TEDTalk, not too surprising. As the opening line from Regina Dugan, the director of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), kind of ominous. But the projects she demonstrated are extraordinary, and how they get there, even more so.

If you want to understand how, ask yourself this question, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” It’s an uncomfortable question, because it forces you to realize that the fear of failure holds you back. The path to new and innovative things always contains failure, but we’re constantly afraid of it — we have to get over that fear. Dugan quotes Clemenceau, “Life gets interesting if you fail, because it means we’ve surpassed ourselves.”

The history of aviation. Lord Kelvin, in 1895, declared heavier than air flight impossible. The Wright brothers, of course, proved him wrong. But they failed many, many, many times before they flew. There were many more declarations of impossibility. Ferdinand Foch, possessing the most  subtle mind in the French military, said: “Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value.”

People didn’t think trans-sonic flight  was possible. In 1947, Chuck Yaeger climbed into the cockpit with a broken rib and, as Dugan says, “Flew towards an unknown possibility.”

And after 11 complete mission failures, we got the first images from space.

Since we took to the sky, we’ve wanted to fly faster and farther. Today the question isn’t about flying or flying supersonically, but hypersonically. That’s Mach 20, or the ability to reach anywhere in the world in 60 minutes. It’s taking, again, multiple failures. But we need to fly again, Dugan says, “Because there’s no way to learn to fly at Mach 20 unless you fly.”

It’s not just bigger and faster. Imagine an aircraft the size of a hummingbird. They’re not hypersonic, but they are maneuverable. The only bird that can fly backwards, and do other extraordinary things. And she has an aircraft that can fly exactly like one. This $4 million aircraft, developed with AeroVironment, is equipped with a video camera, and weighs less than a AA battery. It does not eat nectar. It flew for 20 seconds in 2008; a year later, two minutes, then 6, and eventually 11. “Many prototypes crashed. Many. But there’s no way to learn to fly like a hummingbird unless you fly.”

From the stage, the hummingbird takes off, hovering gorgeously in the air next to Dugan, piloted by Matt, the world’s first hummingbird pilot.

And that’s far from the limits of what DARPA is attempting. Dugan showed other examples.

– Using our knowledge of Gecko anatomy to make spiderman a reality.

– Metals light enough to sit atop a dandelion.

– Harnessing the properties of lightning as the the next GPS.

– A prosthetic arm, controlled by thought, the first robot controlled with thought alone. It was used by a paralyzed man, and was the first time he held girlfriend’s hand in years.

– A green goo from tobacco plants that could make millions of doses of vaccines in weeks instead of months. It “might be the first healthy use of tobacco ever.”

– Gamers who are solving problems that experts couldn’t (like

Failure is everywhere in innovation. In 1969 the first data transmittion went through the nascent internet: The first two letters of “login.” After the ‘l’ and the ‘o’, a buffer overflow crashed the system.

Dugan believes that the nerds at DARPA are heroes. They challenge assumptions and push far past imagined boundaries. And: “We all have nerd power, we just forget.” We’re born with the feeling that we can create and explore. It’s hard to hold on to this feeling. We doubt and fear. We think that someone else will be better than us, more capable. “But there isn’t anyone else, just you. If we’re lucky, someone steps in, takes a hand and says let me help you believe”

For Dugan, that came in the form of an e-mail from Jason Harley, who, on a dark day for her, wrote an e-mail:

“There is only enough time to iron your cape, and back to the skies for you.”