IBM lands deal to make DARPA's self-destructing 'VAPR' ware

DARPA's VAPR project could allow it to blanket vast areas with monitoring sensors without risking the equipment falling into enemy hands.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

IBM has won a US government contract to create a model for transient devices that destruct on command.

Not surprisingly, given the nature of IBM's new task, the contract was awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which early last year announced its Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR).

The idea is that VAPR ware could introduce a new class of transient electronics for places like the battlefield, which would deal with the problem of commercial off-the-shelf electronics being too durable and a potential source of intelligence for adversaries.

"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," DARPA notes on its VAPR page.

IBM won the $3.4m deal with a proposal to use a radio-frequency (RF) based trigger to shatter a thin glass coating — like those applied to device displays — which would turn a silicon chip into dust.

"IBM plans is to utilise the property of strained glass substrates to shatter as the driving force to reduce attached CMOS chips into Si and SiO2 [silicon and silicon dioxide] powder," IBM explained

"A trigger, such as a fuse or a reactive metal layer will be used to initiate shattering, in at least one location, on the glass substrate. An external RF signal will be required for this process to be initiated. IBM will explore various schemes to enhance glass shattering and techniques to transfer this into the attached Si CMOS devices."

Military applications DARPA sees for the devices include field sensors to monitor large areas, as well as diagnosis, treatment and health monitoring in the field.

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

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