DARPA “Toolbox” Lowers Barriers to Semiconductor IP for Researchers
Some challenges to EE research include tight budgets and limited access to reputable silicon IP. DARPA Toolbox hopes to open access to these resources to drive microelectronic innovation forward.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a history of championing electronics development—from sponsoring engineering competitions to partnering with chipmaker Arm.
DARPA has now reaffirmed these interests heading into 2021. By democratizing access to microelectronic resources, the recently-announced DARPA Toolbox program hopes to amplify American engineering research.
DARPA hopes the Toolbox initiative will open access to semiconductor IP to engineers and students alike. Image used courtesy of DARPA
Making the Case for DARPA Toolbox
DARPA Toolbox constitutes a major push for market inclusiveness, acknowledging that large and small entities alike have roles to play in innovation. Many groups, despite their best intentions, lack the financial or technological foundations required for groundbreaking research—a clear disparity between brainpower and resource availability.
Serge Leef—Program Manager of DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO)—explained:
“DARPA performers are frequently encumbered by having to negotiate access to tools, IP, and services, and execute complex legal agreements that take the time away from what they do best – advancing science to benefit the nation.”
IP concerns in the microelectronics arena is particularly characterized by secrecy and patent hoarding. That’s why DARPA’s own partnership with Arm, while incredibly promising, highlights a common problem: small businesses, universities, and teams lack the clout to broker win-win deals. How is DARPA challenging this status quo?
Dissecting the DARPA Toolbox Initiative
DARPA acts as a bridge, connecting researchers to opportunities. The DARPA Toolbox is a de facto marketplace—where groups can browse products, compare costs, and make intelligent decisions. The Agency will facilitate this through negotiations with commercial vendors, who have agreed to provide the following:
- Software products
- Intellectual property and technologies
DARPA has a long history of buoying microelectronics, for instance, with the 2019 "Automatic Implementation of Secure Silicon." Image used courtesy of DARPA
Access is guaranteed to businesses, colleges, or others that maintain a contractual relationship with DARPA. Those who are not ready to sign onto Toolbox can also assess the initiative's offerings beforehand.
The relationships formed between participants and vendors are meant to be symbiotic. Researchers can jumpstart their projects. Additionally, vendors may seize opportunities to generate revenue and support in-house innovation. DARPA also hopes to normalize IP sharing between collaborative parties. Lastly, innovations stemming from these partnerships will help bolster national security.
Company Contributions Thus Far
Buy-ins from tech leaders will be pivotal to DARPA Toolbox’s success. Fortunately, DARPA has since fostered partnerships with a trio of microelectronics players:
Arm brings its extensive portfolio of semiconductor IP to the table. The company’s adjacent roles in the Electronics Resurgence Initiative and Secure Silicon Program will further empower those under DARPA’s umbrella. All researchers will enjoy complete access to Arm’s products for three years.
Goals of the Electronics Resurgence Initiative. Image used courtesy of DARPA
CEVA will grant researchers access to wireless connectivity technology and smart sensing IP. This specifically includes platforms for Bluetooth, 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and computer vision. Sound and motion-sensing technologies are also included. CEVA’s offerings are supported by proprietary software, which will be made available to affiliates. Processors are also fair game. It’s noteworthy that CEVA will actively help researchers leverage these resources effectively.
When teams can’t afford tools, they might be inclined to code their own interfaces. This is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Verific will eliminate this need by offering its own electronic design automation (EDA) software. DARPA states that Verific’s SystemVerilog elaborators and parsers should help immensely in this regard.
DARPA Toolbox’s Future
It’s unclear which other companies might soon join forces with DARPA Toolbox. However, the agency’s strong influence will undoubtedly draw more partners into the fold. The business opportunities alone—any notion of altruistic progress aside—will remain attractive.
The Toolbox initiative aims for companies like Arm to ignite passions within advanced students, who crave impactful, extracurricular research opportunities. Sparking interests keeps students engaged with their degree programs. Contributors to cash-strapped R&D efforts will benefit from having real samples to inspect. It also gives engineers a template from which they can innovate.
DARPA will consider helping teams secure any additional funding needed to support their efforts. The fact remains that researching bodies must foot the bill—albeit heavily discounted. Companies, universities, and others must negotiate licensing terms directly with vendors once their program ends.
Still, DARPA believes the advantages will greatly outweigh any potential inconveniences as the initiative matures.