US seeks ‘Mission: Impossible’ vanishing devices


Sun, Feb 09, 2014 - Page 7

The US military is spending millions to build “vanishing” technology that self-destructs on the battlefield, like the tape recorder that goes up in smoke in the Mission: Impossible television show.

The Pentagon’s high-tech research arm has awarded contracts worth more than US$17 million in the past two months to prevent micro-electronic sensors and other devices from falling into enemy hands.

The companies have been tasked to develop “transient” electronics that could be destroyed remotely or crumble into tiny pieces.

In the 1960s series Mission: Impossible, the lead spy always receives top-secret instructions on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, before being told: “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”

Now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding a 21st-century version of the recorder, backing experimental projects under the Vanishing Programmable Resources Program.

The use of small, sophisticated electronics in everything from radios to weapons has increased dramatically for US forces, but it is “nearly impossible to track and recover every device,” according to a DARPA contract document last month.

“Electronics are often found scattered across the battlefield and might be captured by the enemy and repurposed or studied,” it said, warning that the US is in danger of losing its technological edge.

The new program aims to solve the problem by creating systems “capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner,” rendering the devices useless to the enemy.

For its latest project, the agency is reinterpreting the idea of a “kill switch,” which dates back to the Cold War.

Unlike ordinary off-the-shelf electronics that can last indefinitely, the agency “is looking for a way to make electronics that last precisely as long as they are needed,” program manager Alicia Jackson said.

The device could be destroyed either by a signal sent by commanders or prompted by “possible environmental conditions” such as a certain temperature, she said.

In the latest contract for the program, announced on Jan. 31, DARPA provided US$3.5 million to IBM for a proposal to use a radio frequency to shatter a glass coating on a silicon chip, reducing it to dust.

The Palo Alto Research Center in California received US$2.1 million to develop devices with dummy circuits that would be triggered to “crumble into small, sand-like particles in a fraction of a second.”

Defense giant BAE Systems was awarded US$4.5 million on Jan. 22 and Honeywell Corporation won a US$2.5 million contract on Dec. 3 for more “vanishing” technology research.

And DARPA announced in December last year a US$4.7 million contract for SRI International to develop “SPECTER” batteries designed to self-destruct.