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

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