Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyTagged Content List

Information Microsystems

Relating to computer and other digital electronic systems

Showing 4 results for Microsystems + History RSS
For many years beginning in 1994, DARPA provided substantial funding in the then emergent arena of micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMs). With lineage in microelectronics technology, MEMs researchers cleverly adapted standard semiconductor-fabrication methods to fabricate miniature mechanical structures such as flexible membranes, cantilevers, and even trains of interdigitated gears, and integrated these with electronics to create a menagerie of MEM systems. Among the target deliverables for the DoD were inertial navigation devices for smartening up weapons and tracking soldiers, miniaturized “laboratories on a chip” for such uses as detecting biological weapons in the field, and optical switches and displays. DARPA’s patient support is widely credited with adding consequential momentum to the field of MEMs, which since has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar market in the military and civilian sectors.

With roots extending to the DARPA-supported Transit program—a Navy submarine-geopositioning system originating in the earliest years of the Space Age at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory—what became today’s world-changing GPS technology began to take modern form in 1973. That is when the Department of Defense called for the creation of a joint program office to develop the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System.

In the early 1980s, as this network of dozens of satellites and ground stations became ever more operational, Soldiers on the ground had to heft around bulky and heavy PSN-8 Manpack GPS receivers. In 1983, in response to a Marine Corps Required Operational Capability to lighten warfighters’ loads, DARPA re-emerged in the GPS-development landscape, focusing on miniaturizing GPS receivers. That effort created a context in which an industry participant in the development process, Rockwell Collins, took the baton to produce a gallium arsenide hybrid chip that allowed for combined analog and digital functionality and the first “all-digital” GPS receivers.

Miniaturized GPS technology has significantly improved the U.S. military’s ability to attack and eliminate difficult targets and to do so from greater distances—fundamentally and progressively changing strategy and enabling successes during the Cold War, the Gulf War, and in more recent conflicts in which the United States has had to contend with dispersed and elusive foes. It also has had transformative effects throughout society. Perhaps most emblematic of this ongoing technology revolution is that soothing voice saying, “Turn right at the next corner,” from your smart phone’s navigation application (and the arguably less soothing declaration, “Recalculating”).

Early GPS receivers were bulky, heavy devices. In 1983, DARPA set out to miniaturize them, leading to a much broader adoption of GPS capability.

In response to a call by Congress to establish a program to develop and efficiently transfer new hull, mechanical, and electrical technologies outside of normal U.S. Navy research and development channels, DARPA answered with the Advanced Submarine Technology (SUBTECH) program. Among ten technology demonstrations that successfully transitioned from the program to the Navy between 1989 and 1994 was the Non-Penetrating Periscope (NPP).

The NPP transformed submarine mast development when a prototype system using commercial visible and infrared spectrum cameras was built and demonstrated on the submarine USS Memphis in 1992. Using fiber optic data transmission, the new telescoping mast eliminated the need for the deep, hull-penetrating well that had been required to accommodate the optics tube on the then-current generation of submarines. The NPP also allowed greater flexibility in hull and interior design for future submarines.