DARPA's vision of a self-destructing chip. Image: DARPA
For about a year now, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been looking to develop a favorite tool of movie spies everywhere: electronics that self-destruct on command. Now DARPA is starting to disburse funding to build them, with the latest contracts going to both IBM and PARC, a company owned by Xerox.
According to Military & Aerospace, it's part of DARPA's Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program, through which the agency hopes to build electronics that are comparable performance-wise to anything off the shelf, but that can turn to dust on command. While the utility of such devices is pretty obvious, DARPA's official reasoning is a fascinating look at the networked battlefield:
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.
As more and more pieces of equipment become smart or otherwise electronic, having the ability to destroy that gear remotely is an obvious advantage. (That's assuming the opposition won't be able to as well.) But how can it work? As awesome as the self-destructing tape in Mission Impossible is, burning a tape is far easier than easily and completely disabling a whole bunch of electronics at once.
DARPA's award letters provide insight. The award notice for PARC, which received $2.1 million, states that the company is working on a so-called transient technology called Disintegration Upon Stress-release Trigger, or DUST. The concept involves building self-destructing electronics that mimic the real thing. These "'dummy' circuits [will], upon application of a short electrical trigger, will crumble into small, sand-like particles in a fraction of a second," reads the award. By turning fake circuits into microscopic dust, PARC's electronics will be rendered useless with no apparent change to the naked eye.
IBM, which received $3.5 million, plans something similar. According to its own award notice, IBM expects to use strained glass substrates that, when triggered to explode, will obliterate (IBM says "reduce," but we know what that means) CMOS chips into "into Si and SiO2 powder." The trigger for self-destruction will be controlled via an external radio signal.
The Military & Aerospace article notes that Honeywell and SRI International have previously received awards under the VAPR program, and I also found an award to BAE Systems. Out of all of the VAPR projects, SRI's sounds perhaps the most futuristic.
According to the award notice, the $4.7 million contract is for SPECTRE, a self-destructing battery. SRI writes that the "objective is to (1) design, build, and prove a vanishing silicon/air battery, and (2) transition the proven technology to a semiconductor foundry to yield a deployable, realistic, and scalable power supply." Knowing how hard reinventing the battery can be, I'm extremely intrigued to see how a self-destructing power source could work. (Also, do regular, non-rechargeable batteries count as self-destructing?)
Still, the need for self-destructing circuits is a reminder that, whether it's drones or data-driven soldiers, military equipment makes up a significant part of the internet of things. (In the civilian world, self-destructing data is all the rage.) The VAPR program also stands to show that with all the current focus on cyberwar, hacking the enemy doesn't simply mean attacking servers; when everything is connected, any electronics left behind could potentially provide access to broader systems.