This Message Will Self-Destruct: U.S. Military Vanishing Programmable Resources Project

By Steve Anderson February 07, 2014

It was a staple of the old “Mission: Impossible” television series, and even later movies. Children of the eighties, meanwhile, might better recognize it from “Inspector Gadget.” But regardless of where one remembers it from, the technology itself may be poised to get a thoroughly modern upgrade if a new United States government project, the Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) project, has its way.

The VAPR project, operating under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has brought with it a $3.5 million grant targeted for IBM to work on it, and is focused on developing a kind of electronics system known as a “transient” system, in that it can be destroyed at any time by remote control, a mechanism that could be valuable in combat settings.

IBM doesn't propose going to a system of tape that somehow boils off when it's finished playing—or in the form of paper that has the explosive charge of a couple sticks of dynamite—but rather in the form of a silicon chip, coated in glass. The proposal details how such a chip could be shattered remotely via the use of a certain radio frequency connected to a fuse or a layer of reactive metal, and once shattered, would be reduced to an unusable powder, almost like setting a bank statement on fire. No one can get account data off ash, and no one can get a mission order off powder.

This is said to be part of a larger project for DARPA, which includes a distributed network of sensors which would operate essentially like spies on a timer: the sensors in question would be sent forth, would gather and retransmit data for a defined period of time, then after that time has expired, self-destruct into useless piles of components that can't even be reverse-engineered. That by itself is pretty good, but DARPA even envisions putting similar technology to work in the human body, a sensor that will do a job for a time, and then break down into materials that can be absorbed, or even used, by the body.

But IBM isn't alone in development on this one: Xerox is working on a version that involves materials engineered under stress, causing the circuit to crumble when a signal is received as stress is released. Honeywell Aerospace and SRI International also had skin in this particular game, though when such materials may be put into action, we may never know.

What's interesting about this project is that it doesn't just have military ramifications. Sure, the idea of sensors that can gather information and then crumble into silicates does have some appeal, especially out in the desert. But the previously noted medical applications are certainly a help, and consider for a moment the issue of biological sciences. Consider what this might mean for marine biology, to have sensors that can gather data for a certain length of time and then collapse into what amounts to a slightly refined form of sand. Environmental impact for something like that might well be minimal if even applicable. Of course, the full range of uses would have to be studied first—these technologies don't even exist yet, after all—but there are some noteworthy possibilities here.

In the end, DARPA may well not only provide a powerful new surveillance network and communications tool for the battlefield, but go well beyond that to include other applications. Only time will tell just where it all goes, but there could be big things at work out of DARPA.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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