DARPA Funds New Push to Advance Microelectronics

The government and defense contractors are exploring new ways to create circuits for defense.

DARPA recently started a new program, the Common Heterogeneous Integration and Intellectual Property (IP) Reuse Strategies, or Chips. Its goal is keep up the pace in advancing microelectronics.

The crux of the program is to develop a new technological framework in which different functionalities and blocks of intellectual property—among them data storage, computation, signal processing, and managing the form and flow of data—can be segregated into small chiplets, which then can be mixed, matched, and combined onto an interposer. The process is somewhat akin to joining the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, according to Program Manager Dan Green. Conceivably an entire conventional circuit board with a variety of different but full-sized chips could be shrunk down onto a much smaller interposer hosting a huddle of yet far smaller chiplets.

Central to the design and intention of the program is creating a community of researchers and technologists that mix-and-match ideas, skills, technological strengths, and business interests. That is the reasoning behind including a dozen companies that are already major government contractors for the program, including large defense companies (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing); large microelectronics companies (Intel, Micron, and Cadence Design Systems); other semiconductor design players (Synopsys, Intrinsix Corp., and Jariet Technologies); and university teams (University of Michigan, Georgia Institute of Technology, and North Carolina State University). It would seem that companies outside the circle of government contractors would offer a wider perspective.

If Chips succeeds, Green says we will gain access to a wider variety of specialized blocks to add into systems more easily and with lower costs—a win for both the commercial and defense sectors.

Among the specific technologies that could emerge from this program are compact replacements for entire circuit boards; ultrawideband radio frequency (RF) devices which require of fast data converters with powerful processing; and combining chiplets to provide different accelerator and processors, fast-learning for uncovering interesting and actionable data in large volumes of mundane data. Bringing the best design capabilities, reconfigurable circuit fabrics, and accelerators from the commercial domain should enable firms to create defense systems just by adding smaller specialized chiplets, according to Darpa.

Chips is part of a larger DARPA effort, the Electronics Resurgence Initiative, which aims to build an electronics community that mixes the best of the commercial and defense capabilities for national defense. The ERI will involve an expenditure of at least $200 million annually over the next four years.

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