• DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources program is developing electronics that disappear.
     DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources program is developing electronics that disappear.

This One's for You, Warfighters

March 27, 2017
By George I. Seffers
E-mail About the Author

A DARPA program manager has a taste for vanishing materials and homemade beer.

Troy Olsson, a program manager in the Microsystems Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, says providing technologies to support warfighters is the most satisfying part of his job.

Olsson's connection to warfighters comes in part from his relationship with his grandfather, a former Navy man who taught him right from wrong, valued hard work and never forgot how to navigate by the stars.

Almost all the programs Olsson oversees for the agency, widely known as DARPA, are "about looking at the way people solve a problem today and then thinking of an entirely new way to solve that problem … being able to link that to applications and payoffs for the Department of Defense and specifically for the warfighter,” he says.

And those technologies include some doozies. Take ICARUS, for instance. That’s the Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems program. The idea is to build small unmanned aerial vehicles that perform a mission and then disappear—as in self-destruct.

“ICARUS is trying to build a glider that can be launched possibly from a weather balloon at 35,000 feet, travel 150 kilometers [93 miles] and land within 10 meters [about 33 feet] of accuracy and then physically disappear within four hours of landing. ICARUS is vanishing air-delivery vehicles,” Olsson says, making it all sound so easy.

The vehicles are designed to resupply U.S. troops with water, batteries, medicine or other critical items in certain operational scenarios, such as when their location needs to remain secret. A wounded soldier behind enemy lines, for example, could receive water and first aid from one of the inexpensive and disposable drones. The air vehicles also could be useful in “humanitarian disasters where you might want to do wide-scale deployments” but do not want to leave the drone behind or transport it back, he says.

The drones will be dropped from an altitude where the temperatures can be around minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. They must be able to withstand the wind, self-navigate, steer and land at normal ground temperatures. “ICARUS is something that has operational relevance but is also meant to push the technology... and make it mechanically robust enough to survive a pretty rigorous flight environment,” Olsson states.

ICARUS was borne from the Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program, which is building electronics capable of physically disappearing. Sophisticated electronics are increasingly pervasive on the battlefield for a range of applications, including remote sensing and communications. However, tracking and recovering every device is nearly impossible, resulting in enemy troops or other unauthorized individuals picking up and using these items to compromise intellectual property and chip away at the force's technological advantage. 

VAPR uses a glass substrate similar to what is found on cellphones, but it is custom-tempered so that when triggered, it “vanishes into sub-100 micron-sized particles," roughly the thickness of a piece of paper or the width of a human hair. “That means invisible to the naked eye. We know how to bond electronics and other things to it to make the electronics as well as the packaging disappear,” elaborates Olsson, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering.

He is working with researchers at Georgia Tech and Cornell University on vanishing polymers as well. The polymers are unstable at room temperature, which forces them to “either sublimate into a gas or dissolve into a liquid and then evaporate,” the program manager says. The polymers are combined with material that is stable at room temperature and can be embedded with an acid generator. The acid generator gets released either on a thermal signature or when it’s hit by a certain wavelength of light.

“When it encounters a certain wavelength of light, such as sunlight or X-rays, or when exposed to a certain temperature, it actually just vanishes into a gas. It just turns into vapor,” Olsson reports.

The Near Zero Power RF and Sensor Operations (N-ZERO) program is just as much fun as the vanishing materials, he says. Its goal is to overcome the power limitations of persistent sensing by allowing sensors to remain dormant—effectively asleep yet aware—until an event of interest awakens them. The N-ZERO effort promises not only to benefit warfighters but also to help usher in a true Internet of Things.

The program recently entered its second phase and is ahead of schedule on some key goals, which Olsson cites as one of the most exciting developments since he has been working for DARPA.

A team from the University of Utah, for example, has designed a chemical gas sensor that already is at near-zero power consumption. Additionally, a University of Michigan team developed an acoustic sensor capable of detecting and classifying cars, trucks and generators in noisy environments from a distance of 5 meters (16 feet). It uses 12 nanowatts of power, which is close to the phase one goal of 10 nanowatts but far exceeds the first phase goal of identifying a generator alone from a half-meter.

“The machine-learning algorithms that they’re using to train their classifier really enable it to get not only really low power consumption but also a really high probability of detection and [low] false alarm rate,” Olsson says.

And a Northeastern University group has developed an infrared spectrometer that operates at zero standby power. “They’ve shown that for one wavelength, and now they’re off trying to do multiple wavelengths so that they can characterize infrared signatures with zero power consumption for things like hot gases, for example,” he reveals.

Furthermore, a University of California San Diego group recently published a research paper at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco announcing a receiver that has a sensitivity of about -70 decibel-milliwatts and consumes 4.5 nanowatts. “That’s about 3 1/2 orders of magnitude from the state of the art from when we started the program,” Olsson declares.

In his view, only an organization like DARPA can yield such promising results in such a short time. “Being able to see that new concept and that new way of thinking about a problem come to reality and really change the world ... in this short time span is what’s really unique about DARPA,” he adds.

The N-ZERO program likely will result in multiple products for warfighters to pick and choose from, Olsson reports. While warfighters will likely appreciate such technologies, they may have an even greater appreciation for one of Olsson's passions outside of work: home beer brewing.

A heavy metal fan, Olsson often names his beers after songs but also allows life experience to inspire names for his brews. “I made a Windy Wheat one time in New Mexico when the winds were like 85 miles an hour outside. I was brewing that night and named it after the very nice windstorm we had,” he says.

He makes a hoppy red ale he is “particularly fond of,” and much of the joy comes from tailoring the beer to his own tastes. As an aficionado, he can go to a restaurant, analyze the ingredients and the process by which the beer is made and then go home and tweak it to suit his own taste buds.

Still, beer is best when shared. “One of the greatest parts of making beer is bottling it and sharing with other people,” Olsson says.

Now if he can just use one of those disappearing drones to deliver beer in a glass invisible to company commanders.

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