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DARPA investigating self-destructing electronics

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January 28, 2013

Concept image of the Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR)

Concept image of the Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR)

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Modern electronics are cheap, tough and can operate for years without a hitch. That’s great for building advanced military gear, but what happens if this gear is in danger of falling into enemy hands? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program is investigating the development of special electronics designed to self-destruct on command so as to prevent classified technology being leaked.

The United States military is well aware of the importance of maintaining a technological advantage – especially in the field of electronics. Unfortunately, these electronic sensors, communication nodes and other devices are threatened by their own sophistication. Electronics are now so cheap to make that battlefields are routinely scattered with them, which is fine if it helps the mission to succeed, but it also means that it’s almost impossible to retrieve them all. This raises the danger of some game-changing bit of gear being picked up by the enemy to be reused, reverse engineered or used to develop countermeasures.

To prevent this from happening, DARPA has started the VAPR program. Its purpose is to produce electronics that are as rugged and able to do the job as conventional electronics using off the shelf parts, but with a self-destruct capability that will cause them to dissolve on command.

Example of transient electronics dissolved by water

Example of transient electronics dissolved by water

It’s part of a field called “transient electronics” and builds on previous work by DARPA on self-dissolving biomedical implants that is being expanded into a multidiscipline approach. The idea is to develop electronic components out of materials that function properly, but when triggered will become vulnerable to their surrounding environment and dissolve.

“The commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, electronics made for everyday purchases are durable and last nearly forever,” said Alicia Jackson, DARPA program manager. “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.”

DARPA is seeking proposals for basic research into materials, devices, manufacturing and integration processes, and design methodology with the immediate goal of producing a self-destructing environmental or biomedical sensor that is able to communicate with a remote user.

The video below shows an example of transient electronics.

Source: DARPA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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9 Comments

Making the structural components out of highly flammable or explosive materials and adding an ignition system would work.

Slowburn
28th January, 2013 @ 08:28 pm PST

Oh DARPA! 50% naughty ideas... many times I have the impression you get them from students that have a running imagination without analyzing things very deeply.

Imagine 50 years from now when you have installed disabling chips in all equipment... All the enemy have to attack after hacking that command, when we have no more equipment to use for defense! And you know they are good at hacking... To me disabling chips are more of a liability than a benefit.

If you say "don't worry, we will encrypt the disabling command very well" then why don't you encrypt the functional commands very well so you don't need to disable it because it just does not respond except to well encrypted commands which we provide.

GoodLife03
28th January, 2013 @ 09:31 pm PST

re; GoodLife03

Disposable systems would not need a self destruct command use it and after its power is dead for a preselected period it eats itself but if you recover it before then it is still good as new.

Slowburn
29th January, 2013 @ 12:13 am PST

Many, many years ago, I worked on a crypto system that included a thermite board. There were also ECM systems that had thermite packs in them.

flink
29th January, 2013 @ 02:59 am PST

This would have been useful to have put in the drones we fly to prevent the command and control systems from being reverse engineered if they were crashed or captured.

VirtualGathis
29th January, 2013 @ 08:25 am PST

Too bad didnt have this tech when U2 shot down in 1960 over Russia. Needed now for all MilTech

Stephen N Russell
29th January, 2013 @ 05:38 pm PST

@flink

Did those units come with a "Thermite Inside" sticker?

just4This
29th January, 2013 @ 07:12 pm PST

Wait..commercial electronics last forever? I thought they put a hard cap on lifespan of most electronics? I know for a fact that all my laptop's spinny drive fails after exactly 2 years, on the dot. I know because my last 3 died 2 days after the warranty expired. Ditto for over a dozen of my friends since college.

Similarly, my smart phones (and those of everyone I know) works the same way--2 years in, bam--the keyboard is dead, the screen glitches up, the antennae just gave up, the phone refuses to charge (not battery--the hardware itself refuse to let any power into the battery, putting it in permanent coma unless I charge the battery from another phone, then put it in). Exactly, 2, years. On the dot.

Savin Nay Wangtal
31st January, 2013 @ 06:28 am PST

or perhaps its time for world to grow up and stop this "enemy" psychology. They will use it only and only to protect their secretly developed technology. Its all about profits and interests. How about some open source for all world to use, or are we the people not that important?

Marko Marjanovic IV
15th February, 2013 @ 10:00 am PST
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