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DARPA image of dissolving electronics

Electronics that dissolve when not in use?

We’ve all had electronic equipment break as soon as the warranty expired, but the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to design future military gear to go a step further, melting away as soon as it’s no longer needed.

The problem that DARPA is trying to solve is that the military today has so much technology, such as small sensors and even phones, that much of it gets left behind or even lost when troops relocate. The devices could be found and examined by the enemy.

Given time with a confiscated device, the enemy could gain some insights as to how our technology works, compromising DOD’s “strategic technological advantage,” DARPA said. But that wouldn’t happen if the device begins to decay at the first sign of trouble.

So DARPA has created the Vanishing Programmable Resources program, whose acronym, VAPR, sums up the general idea.

Technology in the VAPR program has to be rugged and able to perform up to the same rigorous standards as gear does today, which means it needs to be able to handle the MIL-SPEC-810 testing. But when a device is listed as lost and receives some sort of a trigger, or after a certain amount of time has expired, it must partially or fully degrade, so that no working part could be examined by unauthorized personnel.

“The commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, electronics made for everyday purchases are durable and last nearly forever,” Alicia Jackson, DARPA program manager, said in announcing VAPR. “DARPA is looking for a way to make electronics that last precisely as long as they are needed. The breakdown of such devices could be triggered by a signal sent from command or any number of possible environmental conditions, such as temperature.”

To solicit ideas, DARPA is hosting a presenters’ day,  where teams of innovators can pitch their thoughts on how such technology could be designed and implemented.

As with most DARPA projects, the agency expects creating vanishing technology will be a tough goal but one that can be achieved.

“This is a tall order, and we imagine a multidisciplinary approach,” Jackson said. “Teams will likely need industry experts who understand circuits, integration and design. Performers from the material science community will be sought to develop novel substrates. There's lots of room for innovation by clever people with diverse expertise.”
There is some precedent for degradable equipment, or “transient electronics,” Jackson pointed out. In September 2012, DARPA reported progress in developing ultrathin, biocompatible electronics that completely dissolve in liquid and could be used in implantable medical treatments.

DARPA said it is hoping VAPR’s initial project will result in a degradable circuit that could be used in an environmental or biomedical sensor.

Posted by John Breeden II on Feb 05, 2013 at 9:39 AM


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