US military funds 'Mission: Impossible' vanishing devices

Feb 08, 2014 by Dan De Luce

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 hi-tech research arm has awarded contracts worth more than $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 American 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 America 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.

DARPA is known for its ambitious research, some of which has resulted in breakthroughs useful for both military and civilian use, including the creation of the Internet and GPS navigation system.

For its latest project, the agency is reinterpreting the idea of a "kill switch," which dates back to the Cold War, when "permissive action link" devices were introduced to prevent a rogue nuclear launch.

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," said program manager Alicia Jackson.

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.

The nascent technology is potentially revolutionary, with possible applications for medicine as well as combat, officials said.

In 2012, DARPA used similar technology to create a micro device—made of ultra-thin sheets of silicon and magnesium covered in silk—to be implanted harmlessly into the body to prevent infection from surgery.

Efforts to build degradable electronics have tended to rely on polymeric or biological materials, and that has resulted in poor electronic performance and "weak mechanical properties," according to the agency.

The project is still a long away from being deployed in a real battle, and will require years of research by private industry.

In the latest contract for the program, announced on January 31, DARPA provided $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 $2.1 million to build 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 $4.5 million on January 22 and Honeywell Corporation won a $2.5 million contract on December 3 for more "vanishing" technology research.

And DARPA announced in December a $4.7 million contract for SRI International to develop "SPECTRE" batteries designed to self-destruct.

Explore further: DARPA open catalog makes agency-sponsored software and publications available to all

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New micro gyro technology for DARPA to be developed

May 24, 2011

The Georgia Institute of Technology, in partnership with Northrop Grumman Corporation, has been selected to develop a new type of Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) gyroscope technology for the Defense Advanced Research ...

Recommended for you

Cadillac CT6 will get streaming video mirror

23 hours ago

Cadillac said Thursday it will add high resolution streaming video to the function of a rearview mirror, so that the driver's vision and safety can be enhanced. The technology will debut on the 2016 Cadillac ...

Poll: Americans skeptical of commercial drones (Update)

Dec 19, 2014

Americans broadly back tight regulations on commercial drone operators, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, as concerns about privacy and safety override the potential benefits of the heralded drone ...

Cheaper, more powerful VR system for engineers

Dec 17, 2014

It's like a scene from a gamer's wildest dreams: 12 high-definition, 55-inch 3D televisions all connected to a computer capable of supporting high-end, graphics-intensive gaming.

Nokia HERE prepares maps for autonomous cars

Dec 17, 2014

Autonomous cars will need a new kind of map, a crucial element that until now has been given a back seat to the more popularly discussed issues of sensors and legal questions. Senior Writer Greg Miller in ...

Dutch launch 'intelligent bicycle' that warns of danger

Dec 15, 2014

The Netherlands on Monday launched its first-ever "intelligent bicycle", fitted with an array of electronic devices to help bring down the high accident rate among elderly cyclists in the bicycle-mad country.

User comments : 10

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Lex Talonis
1 / 5 (6) Feb 08, 2014
I have a great idea....

Strap a hand grenade with a rip cord to the pin, to the forehead of every American in the military, in DARPA, in the CIA, in the Pentagon, with all the workers in all the arms industries, and all the managers of all the American corporations, and send them around the world, to give motivational speeches about being selfless.

Pox Americana.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (5) Feb 08, 2014
Strap a hand grenade with a rip cord to the pin, to the forehead of every American in the military,...

I'd pay to see that (from a safe distance)*. Kickstarter?

*I'd have people of a similar bent from all other countries join, too. Why let Americans have all the fun?
Nik_2213
not rated yet Feb 08, 2014
Didn't the Iranians recently complain about a Mossad 'spy rock' near one of their nuclear sites ? Apparently, the concealed camera self-destructed when disturbed...
Tessellatedtessellations
1 / 5 (2) Feb 08, 2014
It is interesting how the obvious solution to preventing tech leaks doesn't occur to them--stop bombing and killing people for no good reason. But that wouldn't be profitable to the military industrial complex, and making disintegrating electronics is. Ain't Capitalism wonderful!
antialias_physorg
2 / 5 (4) Feb 08, 2014
stop bombing and killing people for no good reason

Where's the profit in that? Who's going to kep buying all those shiny bombs?
There's plenty of 'good' reasons to keep doing this sh*t. Those reasons are mostly printed in green.
philstacy9
not rated yet Feb 08, 2014
Possibly enemy forces could learn to deactivate key equipment at an inopportune moment.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.3 / 5 (3) Feb 08, 2014
I'd pay to see that (from a safe distance)*. Kickstarter?
So now you actually want to start killing americans? What a vile, vicious little person you are. Why not use Zyklon B? You all have some experience with that.

What happens when the US leaves a country to insurgents...

"Civilians in Afghanistan suffered a heavy toll last year with total casualties jumping 14 percent...

"The Afghan government.. finds itself under increasing attack by insurgents, and the fighting partially accounts for last year's dramatic surge in casualties

"... an "alarming increase in women and children casualties... the UN blamed around 75 percent of the casualties on the Taliban."

-As it was, so shall it be...

"eyewitness accounts of the massacre of up to 8,000 people by Islamic fundamentalist Taliban fighters who ran amok in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif last August [1998]"

-Antialias loves indigene butchers like these.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4 / 5 (4) Feb 08, 2014
"Taliban's crimes against humanity, e.g., massacre of 8000 Shia Hazaras and Sunni Uzbeks by (Takfiri Deobandi) Taliban in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998 – After the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 the Taliban indulged in the "frenzied killing of shop owners, cart pullers, women and children shoppers". Women and girls were raped, and thousands of civilians, mainly ethnic Hazaras, were massacred.; murder of 26 Ismaili Shias by Taliban in May 2000 at Robatak Pass, mass execution of Shia Hazara people in Yakawlang District of Bamyan province in January 2001 – The public execution in Yakaolang of at least 170 civilians, mainly from humanitarian organisations. "...eyewitnesses reported the deliberate killing of dozens of civilians hiding in a mosque." -etc.

-I can understand why antialias might object to foreigners trying to stop these sorts of people. His grandfathers were allowed to pursue such actions unopposed and perhaps he feels this is a right.

We dont.
OZGuy
5 / 5 (3) Feb 08, 2014
Rex you do not have an idea you have a weird sick fantasy. Tell me did you giggle as you typed it?

You remind me of the morons who crave anarchy and the collapse of government but still expect fast food outlets to be open and their mobile phones work(albeit all for free) post-collapse. Apparently alcohol will also be free and readily available.

The just want to get to do whatever they choose at no cost to them with no questions asked and no responsibility for the consequenses, anarchy is their vehicle of choice because they have ZERO desire to get of their arses and do anything constructive to change their lives.

When an individual behaves violently society expects the police to stop them, when a country does it the world expects America to stop them. If you don't want America to act as a policeman then get YOUR country to do something constructive about world violence. Sitting on your arse and posting hate-mongering messages will NOT help anyone.
OZGuy
5 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2014
If it wasn't for DARPA (ARPA at the time) there would be no Internet.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.