If there’s one big drawback to mobile computing in the federal government, it’s the risk that a device could be lost or stolen, putting sensitive data in the wrong hands. Some mobile device management solutions can remotely lock or wipe lost and stolen devices, but what if they could make devices disintegrate instead?
Such vanishing electronics are fast going from “Mission Impossible” fantasy to reality, courtesy of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program.aspx), which has spent the past several years funding research into what are called transient electronics — devices that last “as long as they are needed,” according to a DARPA program manager. Self-destruction could be triggered by an electronic signal or by environmental conditions, such as heat or cold. Recently, DARPA began researching batteries that would virtually disappear.
Early work was so promising that DARPA funded another, larger round of research through companies such as Honeywell, IBM and SRI International. “They’ve been given very large research contracts to maybe take this to industrial scale,” says John Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois, which received two DARPA grants in an earlier round of research. “I expect a lot of progress coming out of that work.”
Transient electronics have a broad range of potential applications. Surveillance and other sensor electronics could be programmed to disintegrate in order to avoid detection or suspicion. Notebooks, tablets and smartphones could use transient flash memory that self-destructs after receiving a specific signal, or if a user doesn’t enter a password or other form of authentication in a certain amount of time.
Healthcare researchers are interested in transient electronics as a way to implant drug-delivery or diagnostic devices that automatically dissolve in the body when they’re no longer needed.
Methods of Self-Destruction
It’s unclear what will be the preferred method of self-destruction. One possibility is to use fuel cells, which are emerging as an alternative to batteries in tablets and other handheld devices. Many such fuels can seriously damage or destroy electronics, so a transient architecture could simply unleash the fuel and flood the device.
The choice, researchers say, comes down to how much damage is required. If a whole device must be destroyed — perhaps because it contains sensitive components — compromised fuel cells may be the way to go. If only device memory needs to be destroyed, a blast of current from the battery might do the trick.
Either way, researchers are optimistic that transient electronics are viable, not only in terms of functionality, but also in terms of mass production. The latter is important because it makes transient electronics something that smartphone, tablet and notebook vendors could justify building into products aimed at government buyers.
“At the end of the day, they’re materials challenges, with a little engineering integration, as well,” says Chris Bettinger, a Carnegie Mellon University professor researching transient electronics.
On the one hand, transient electronics could be less expensive than conventional counterparts because they might use materials that don’t have to last as long. On the other hand, they could cost a premium because they can’t leverage existing architectures.
Such details are likely to get sorted out quickly. Researchers expect self-destructing smartphones, tablets, notebooks and sensors to materialize within the next five years.
“It’s going to be quick,” Rogers says. “Biomedical devices may take some time because they require FDA approval. But the kind we’re talking about now can be done in short order. There are issues around cost and reliability and manufacturing, but those are practical engineering problems. There’s no significant hurdle to making this happen.”