IBM to research 'self-destructing microprocessors' in $3.4m DARPA deal

By Graeme Burton
12 Feb 2014 View Comments

IBM Microelectronics has won a $3.4m contract to conduct research into self-destructing microprocessors.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding the work under its Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) programme – an initiative to make electronic systems capable of physically remote destructing in a controlled manner so that systems lost on the battlefield cannot be scooped up and used by enemies.

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DARPA is keen to develop such equipment because electronics have become so pervasive in modern warfare, but tracking and recovering every device after operations can be difficult.

"Sophisticated electronics can be made at low cost and are increasingly pervasive throughout the battlefield. Large numbers can be widely proliferated and used for applications such as distributed remote sensing and communications.

"However, it is nearly impossible to track and recover every device, resulting in unintended accumulation in the environment and potential unauthorized use and compromise of intellectual property and technological advantage," claimed DARPA on its Microsystems Technology Office website.

"The Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program seeks electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner. These transient electronics should have performance comparable to commercial off-the-shelf electronics, but with limited device persistence that can be programmed, adjusted in real-time, triggered, and/or be sensitive to the deployment environment."

The initiative will require research into materials, components, integration, and manufacturing in order to create "this new class of electronics".

According to DARPA, "transient electronics may enable a number of revolutionary military capabilities including sensors for conventional indoor/outdoor environments, environmental monitoring over large areas, and simplified diagnosis, treatment, and health monitoring in the field.

"Large-area distributed networks of sensors that can decompose in the natural environment ('eco-resorbable') may provide critical data for a specified duration, but no longer. Alternatively, devices that resorb into the body ('bio-resorbable') may aid in continuous health monitoring and treatment in the field."

Separately, IBM is reportedly looking to offload its microelectronics division, which has seen sales fall after losing the contract to produce microprocessors for next-generation consoles to AMD.

The mainstay of IBM Microelectronics includes fabrication facilities that make the Power-series chips that go in IBM's high-end Unix servers and System-Z mainframes. While selling its production facilities, which require frequent injections of capital to build next-generation facilities, IBM is looking to keep its Power chip-design team.

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