Ask engineers to solve a problem, and they're bound to come with something. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) can attest to that.
Last year, the agency published a call for proposals turning to engineers to develop a nearly microscopic component that could be attached to system components. The idea behind the Supply Chain Hardware Integrity of Electronics Defense (SHIELD) program was to come up with a way to help identify and combat counterfeit and suspect electronic parts. EBN's Hailey McKeefry wrote about that proposal here.
Earlier this month, DARPA release pictures and information about how these prototypes are shaping up. See that black spot on Abe Lincoln's nose in the blown up shot of the penny? And, those three specks in the middle of the needle's eye? Yup. They're dummy semiconductor chiplets, or "dielets," as DARPA Program Manager Kerry Bernstein refers them.
Photo courtesy of DARPA
In the near future, if they are fully developed as envisioned, these dielets "could become Lilliputian electronic tamper-watching sentinels affixed to virtually every chip built into commercial and military systems," according to the DARPA release.
If they are fully developed as envisioned, each dielet will host up to 100,000 transistors, and have other notable features and functions, which may include two-way radio communication, on-board encryption, an energy harvesting function that casts away the need for a battery and passive sensors for tamper-detection, according to the agency. The plan, too, calls for the chiplets to consume less than 50 microwatts and cost a fraction of a cent.
"We are on track to build the world's smallest highly integrated computer chip," Kerry said in a statement. "If we succeed, then an untrained operator at any place along the supply chain will be able to interrogate the authenticity of any component used by the Defense Department or in the commercial sector, and get high-confidence results back immediately, on site, securely and essentially for free."
News that there be a more streamlined way of tracking and curbing the significant electronic component counterfeiting problem could help DoD contractors and suppliers breathe a little easier.
As Loftware's Electronics Industry Specialist Joe Longo points out in this EBN article, in May 2014 the DoD amended the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act with a finalized ruling to detect and avoid counterfeit electronics. But, there is still confusion about who is responsible for which part of the ruling, how to cost-effectively and efficiently identify counterfeit parts, and how exactly to meet the mandate's requirements.