Self-destructing, vanishing electronics on the way

A flock of small, single-use drones capable of making precise deliveries or completing other military missions and then vaporizing into thin air sounds suspiciously like science fiction, but the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its partners participating in the ICARUS program have developed and are bringing this technology into the realm of reality.

“ICARUS” is the mythology-alluding acronym for DARPA’s $8M Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems program. The program builds upon recent innovations in its Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program, which is focused on developing self-destructing electronic components.

“Our VAPR program partners are developing structurally sound transient materials with mechanical properties that exceeded our expectations,” says Troy Olsson, program manager of VAPR and ICARUS for DARPA.

One intriguing example of these ephemeral materials is small polymer panels that sublimate directly from a solid phase to a gas phase. Another option? Electronics-bearing glass strips with high-stress inner anatomies that can be easily triggered to shatter into ultrafine particles after use.

The goal of DARPA’s VAPR program is to create electronics made of materials that can be made to “vanish” if they are left behind after battle—primarily to prevent their retrieval by adversaries, but also to avoid making a mess of the battlefield environment.

With the progress made via VAPR, “it became plausible to imagine building larger, more robust structures using these materials for an even wider array of applications,” Olsson says. And it begged the question: What sorts of systems would be even more useful if they simply “disappeared” right after use?

That’s where the ICARUS program comes in, with parallels to the ancient story of Icarus soaring with youthful abandon on wings crafted from feather and wax, until he flew too close to the sun and the wings disintegrated. The program seeks to mimic the material transience that ultimately led to Icarus’s demise, but leveraging it for scenarios with non-tragic endings.

For the military, small unmanned delivery systems with structural and avionics components built with transient materials offer many possibilities, including mentionable ones such as easing the provision of water, batteries, or emergency medical supplies without adding to a unit’s pack-out burden.

“Vanishing delivery vehicles could extend military and civilian operational capabilities in extenuating circumstances where there currently is no means to provide additional support,” says Olsson, who is optimistic that the program will attract talented and creative partners because it involves such fascinating science and engineering.

“Inventing transient materials, devising ways of scaling up their production, and combining these challenges with the hard control and aerodynamic requirements to reach the precision and soft-landing specs we need here makes for a challenging and compelling engineering problem,” he points out.

One of the partners publicly working with DARPA to develop and demonstrate a “disappearing electronics” platform as part of VAPR, is PARC, a Xerox company. Their approach is called DUST, a.k.a. Disintegration Upon Stress Release Trigger, which has obvious implications for the military.

This particular technology enables electronic devices using full-performance microchips to be physically disintegrated upon command.

The transient materials involved provide performance on par with commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics, according to PARC, but with a limited device persistence that can be programmed, adjusted in real time, triggered, or even be designed to be sensitive to the deployment environment.

An issue DARPA hopes to address with this type of technology is that although large numbers of sophisticated electronics are increasingly pervasive on the battlefield—used for applications such as distributed remote sensing and communications—it’s nearly impossible to keep track of or recover each of these devices. This can lead to the undesirable loss of intellectual property and technological advantage.

In terms its transient technology, PARC has performed several dozen live demonstrations in which a standard laser pointer provides a remote logical signal that triggers a current pulse within a resistive heater. This, in turn, provides energy to initiate a defect and disintegrate the electronic device within mere seconds. Optical or radio frequency signals can be used as triggers, but physical or chemical triggers are also possible.

Not surprisingly, PARC’s technology is intended to be compatible with COTS electronic devices and fabrication processes, which should lead to a wide range of complex transient functionality. (See “Small UAS payloads pose SWaP and bandwidth challenges”).

And because the company specializes in developing sophisticated electronics with a focus on novel form factors and manufacturing approaches, as well as reduced size and cost, DUST is a natural fit for PARC. Expect to see their transient devices used for applications such as objects embedded with sensors to support the fast-growing Internet of Things (IoT) or as a destructive option to enhance data security.