Self Destructing Electronics: Mission Impossible or Not?


Fans of the Mission Impossible series will be no stranger to the concept of self-destructing messages, but real-life spies, probably not so much. Meanwhile DARPA, the research wing of the US military, would probably prefer to avoid the Hollywood alternative of disposing of redundant electrical devices by ingesting them.

There is a problem to be solved though. These days, the military is heavily reliant on sophisticated electronic equipment such as remote sensors, radios and computers. Should these fall into enemy hands, they could potentially give up critical information to terrorists or foreign spies, or worse, they may even be reverse-engineered.

So this is why the idea of self-destructing electronics is now being given some serious thought by DARPA. The agency’s new Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program aims to develop a new generation of devices with all the ruggedness and functionality of we’ve become accustomed to, with one key difference. When triggered, these devices can automatically degrade themselves so they become worthless to whoever gets their hands on them (like when drones crash-land in Iran).

Alicia Jackson, DARPA’s Program Manager, spoke to about the purpose of the project:

“The commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, electronics made for everyday purchases are durable and last nearly forever,” she explains.

“DARPA is looking for a way to make electronics that last precisely as long as they are needed. The breakdown of such devices could be triggered by a signal sent from command or any number of possible environmental conditions, such as temperature.”

The problem that DARPA has is that the agency doesn’t have the manpower or resources to develop these kinds of electronic devices by itself, and so now it’s reaching out for help from industry experts. To do so, DARPA has announced a grand Proposer’s Day event, where participants can carry out basic research into materials, devices, manufacturing and integration processes. The program will focus on medical applications for now, demonstrating a technology with a circuit representative of an environmental or biomedical sensor able to communicate with a remote user.

“DARPA has previously demonstrated that transient electronics might be used to fight infections at surgical sites,” says Jackson. “Now, we want to develop a revolutionary new class of electronics for a variety of systems whose transience does not require submersion in water.”