Arati Prabhakar, director of the Pentagon’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. (Photo by David Kidd/ courtesy of NVTC)

I often chide local business leaders for not thinking big enough.

Arati Prabhakar doesn’t have this problem.

Prabhakar is the director of the Pentagon’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and she’s every bit the visionary we should want in our technology leaders, not to mention something of a trendsetter.

She’s a woman in an industry where women are far too rare. She’s an Indian American, having arrived in this country at age 3, and grown up in Lubbock, Tex. And she was a young tech maven before being a young tech maven was cool: In 1993, at age 34, she was appointed to lead the National Institutes of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg.

Prabhakar recently spoke at a Northern Virginia Technology Council breakfast, where she detailed DARPA’s role as an innovation engine. The Arlington-based agency, she said, got its start after the nation was caught by surprise in 1957 by the then-Soviet Union’s success in putting the Sputnik satellite in orbit. Ever since, DARPA has worked to help America regain its technological superiority, and it seeded research on many of the advances shaping society today, from the Internet to tiny GPS receivers and night vision equipment that allowed U.S. warfighters to “own the night.”

Now the rules of the game are changing. America’s wealth once allowed us to outspend our adversaries, creating extremely complex systems that were the envy of the world. But the nation’s rivals and adversaries are beginning to make headway in deploying simpler, cheaper alternatives that allow them to be more nimble.

“If we don’t figure this out, we are doomed to a future where we are building PowerPoints instead of real systems, and that’s not where the nation needs to be,” she warned.

An example: Space. A commercial market is forming, and other nations are putting up their own satellites. “Space is becoming a congested and competitive environment,” she said.

In response, DARPA is looking at what it might take to launch gear into space on a 24-hour notice, from airport runways, for less than $1 million a mission.

Here on Earth, she sees biology as the new technology. DARPA is developing diagnostic tests for diseases and infections that even a child can manage. “Our thinking is if a 6-year-old kid can do it, then a soldier under stressful conditions should also be able to manage it,” she explained.

Another promising line of research? Artificial limbs that actually respond to signals from the brain. Prototypes have been developed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County.

“DARPA is still a place where deeply committed people run to work every morning because they are on a mission to change the world,” she said.