Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyTagged Content List

Microchips and Components

Relating to miniaturized electronic circuitry and its components and features

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In 1993, program manager Stuart Wolf initiated what become a sustained sequence of programs that helped develop the foundations of magnetics-based and quantum microelectronics. The first program, Spintronics, catalyzed the development of non-volatile magnetic memory (MRAM) devices and led to SPiNS, a program that sought to develop spin-based integrated circuits (ICs). During this period, DARPA started a dozen related programs in the field of magnetics and electron spin for microelectronics that collectively helped launch increasingly diverse and complex technologies, including ones that led to astoundingly dense data storage.
The microelectronics revolution led to a ubiquity of fingernail-sized chips bearing integrated circuits made of large numbers of tiny transistors, interconnects, and other miniaturized components and devices. DARPA challenged the research community to achieve the tight integration of chips to the scale of the entire semiconductor wafer from which, normally, hundreds of chips would be diced and then packaged into separate components of electronic systems. Among the motivations were the expectations of higher computation or storage capability in a smaller volumes, higher-reliability systems; and reduced power consumption of the wafer-based systems. The research included work in materials, defect management, manufacturing techniques, among other areas. The approach opened up novel engineering opportunities particularly for fabricating multi-element, phased-array, antenna modules on gallium-arsenide wafer for both transmitting and receiving signals.
Long coils of optical waveguides—any structure that can guide light, like conventional optical fiber—can be used to create a time delay in the transmission of light. Such photonic delays are useful in military application ranging from small navigation sensors to wideband phased array radar and communication antennas. Although optical fiber has extremely low signal loss, an advantage that enables the backbone of the global Internet, it is limited in certain photonic delay applications. Connecting fiber optics with microchip-scale photonic systems requires sensitive, labor-intensive assembly and a system with a large number of connections suffers from signal loss.
DARPA-funded researchers have developed one of the world’s largest and most complex computer chips ever produced—one whose architecture is inspired by the neuronal structure of the brain and requires only a fraction of the electrical power of conventional chips.
Many essential military capabilities—including autonomous navigation, chemical-biological sensing, precision targeting and communications—increasingly rely upon laser-scanning technologies such as LIDAR (think radar that uses light instead of radio waves). These technologies provide amazing high-resolution information at long ranges but have a common Achilles heel: They require mechanical assemblies to sweep the laser back and forth. These large, slow opto-mechanical systems are both temperature- and impact-sensitive and often cost tens of thousands of dollars each—all factors that limit widespread adoption of current technologies for military and commercial use.