DARPA’s Recent Deal With Arm Reflects a History of Microelectronics Innovation

August 27, 2020 by Tyler Charboneau

From a three-year partnership with Arm to sponsoring ongoing Electronics Resurgence Initiatives, here’s how the U.S. DARPA is forging onward in microelectronics.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a long history of investment in microelectronics. Most recently, the agency inked a three-year partnership with Arm in which Arm will supply its leading IP for ongoing research in DARPA's Electronics Resurgence Initiatives

From research and development to educational programs, DARPA has, in many ways, spearheaded significant advances in electrical engineering over the years. Here's a brief overview of the some of the highlights, now topped by this collaboration with Arm. 


DARPA’s Technological History

Established in 1958, DARPA (known simply as ARPA until 1972) arose in response to the United States’ perceived backslide in technological prowess on the world stage. With the Cold War raging on amid Sputnik 1’s cosmic ascent, the country demanded a new vehicle for nationalistic innovation.

DARPA has spawned some impressive advancements in the years following:

  • The TIROS 1 weather-monitoring satellite, featuring TV transmitters, and IR electronics—plus beacons and antennas
  • The Transit satellite network, a GPS precursor sensitive to Doppler effects and reliant upon radio emissions
  • The world’s first computer mouse, a simple device developed alongside ARPANET Shakey the Robot, a self-guided machine based around AI, RF communications, and a range finder
  • Viable research into gallium arsenide, a rival to silicon, which promised faster transistor performance and GPS receiver miniaturization
  • The HALOE system, a high-altitude LiDAR solution for rapid 3D mapping via aircraft

DARPA has an affinity for the robotics realm. Aside from Shakey, the agency’s Microsystems Technology Office has brought many seemingly "hair-brained" schemes to the forefront. Their SHRIMP challenge outlined requirements for competitive robotics development—all entrants dimensionally measuring mere millimeters or centimeters. Boston Dynamics’ ATLAS robot also arose directly from DARPA’s Robotics Challenge.


Three highlights from DARPA's history

Three highlights from DARPA's history: (left) the Sputnik ascent, (center) the world's first weather satellite, (right) the development of ARPANET, the prototypical communications network. Image used courtesy of DARPA

The agency has also assumed a role in furthering semiconductor development. One such movement to advance very-large-scale integration (VLSI)—dubbed the MOSIS Semiconductor Service—alleviated the need for high-tech fabs and complex manufacturing processes. By shouldering these burdens, the service facilitated rapid turnaround and production of custom microelectronic devices. MOSIS made it possible to place numerous chip designs onto one wafer.

DARPA’s whimsical experimentation has known few bounds, and its innovative breadth has been vast. Though the military-industrial complex has benefitted greatly from DARPA’s progress, many of the agency’s creations have directly influenced the rise of popular consumer technologies enjoyed globally today.


DARPA-Funded Research Initiatives

In many ways, DARPA’s various competitions have served as funded research initiatives. The SHRIMP competition has awarded over $32 million in prizes based on achievement in three technical areas with varied complexity. Satisfying each tier’s technical requirements may net researchers prize money. Its competitive nature—combined with financial incentives—drives R&D forward.

The story is similar for the DARPA Robotics Challenge and their recent Subterranean Challenge. While development teams are self-funded, prize funding can offset these initial investments. Not only that, but each competition has a timeline, with some pre-competition testing kicking off years before submission.


DARPA hosted a Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit.

DARPA hosted a Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit. Image used courtesy of DARPA

2017 was also a big year for DARPA initiatives. The agency helped launch the JUMP alongside the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC). The program established a network of half a dozen university research centers—each specializing in its own technological niche. The JUMP helps fund microelectronics research for instructors and their students.

Similarly, the Service Academies Swarm Challenge assists military academy students in leveraging UAVs and robots. Research is dedicated to offensive and defensive tactics during conflict.

Most recently, the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge tasked researchers with ensuring bandwidth for wireless devices—from both a military and consumer standpoint. The challenge was aimed at combatting congestion along the electromagnetic spectrum.

The spectral environment is highly dynamic; teams were tasked with redefining how humans and machines can optimize radiofrequency signal flows. For three years, researchers developed radios with machine learning capabilities to help automate this process. Universities and companies alike have participated.


The Electronics Resurgence Initiative

In an effort to promote American semiconductor advancement, DARPA spearheaded a $1.5 billion investment program taking place over five years. The initiative unites contributors from the government, academia, industry, and defense realms—all of whom aim to broaden the U.S.’ strategic tech advantage over other nations.


Diagram of the goals of the Electronics Resurgence Initiative

Diagram of the goals of the Electronics Resurgence Initiative. Image used courtesy of DARPA

The ERI’s priorities are established by the Department of Defense and commercial influencers, and are as follows:

  • 3D heterogeneous integration
  • Autonomy
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Hardware-and-cyber security
  • 5G and RF communications modernization
  • Positioning, navigation, and timing
  • Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
  • Communications
  • Computing
  • Microsystems technology

Enhanced national security and economic prosperity are the primary benefits of DARPA’s program. The ERI also holds an annual summit, focusing on networking and education. Presenters from multiple industries can share their discoveries while transitioning to new ERI projects. The ERI Summit grants contributors a forum for discussion and ideation—either in person or virtually as it was this year. Workshops are also provided.


DARPA’s Future with Arm

DARPA’s fresh agreement with Arm constitutes a continued focus on processing and computing advancements. The agency has been given an IP license, allowing the collective to harness the power of Arm’s workforce and design resources. Arm has shipped over 170 billion chips to date—allowing DARPA access to low-cost, scaled hardware production. This silicon will aid the agency in experimenting with and creating groundbreaking technologies.


DARPA's automatic implementation of secure silicon program

DARPA's automatic implementation of secure silicon program. Image used courtesy of DARPA

Because Arm and mobile computing go hand in hand, we might expect DARPA to leverage these electronics for cellular development. DARPA has a rich history in RF communication, and thus a heavy interest in network-based technologies. This seems like a perfect pairing. Arm is heavily invested in powering small electronics, using small nanometer processes, which aligns ideally with microelectronic development.

This announcement arrives on the heels of another venture between the two parties—via DARPA’s Secure Silicon Program. The four-year effort is centered on balancing security goals with power consumption, performance, and overall cost per specific application. Reference platforms, reference flows, and secure workflows will contribute to this vision.

The program also seeks to boost security scalability within chip designs, even allowing for cloud-based design down the road. DARPA and Arm will team up with Synopsys, plus a number of university partners. While the partnership is still in its infancy, DARPA’s track record suggests that a growing number of innovations are coming soon.