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Apr 26, 2012
DARPA seeks hybrid "system-on-a-chip" solution to GPS vulnerabilities
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There is often considerable overlap between the needs of companies that create military systems and those that focus on commercial or “civilian” applications.  Sometimes the desired outcome can be obtained by repositioning an existing technology, with minor modifications, but in other cases a more complex process is required.  In these cases, the optimal outcome involves a coordinated collaborative effort  -- usually multidisciplinary in nature -- to marshal the technical and creative expertise necessary to juxtapose numerous technologies that may or may not already exist.

Take for example the ongoing development of micro-electromechanical (MEM) components.  This trend -- which focuses on the integration of complimentary technologies in tandem with the drastic reduction of their physical size -- while increasing performance metrics - was covered by Patexia writer Daniel Porter in a recent research publication entitled “MEMs next in line for new manufacturing technology.”

Overdependence on the GPS satellite constellation has been called the "achilles heel" of the American military.While his researched focused mainly on using examples from commercial civilian companies, the relevancy of MEM technologies – and the overlap with immediate military needs – was once again illustrated by a recent series of requests and developments from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  DARPA and military specialists across the globe have long acknowledged the Achilles Heel of the American military to be our over dependency on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in our weapon targeting/delivery systems.

These systems, not surprisingly, are highly susceptible to electronic counter measures, which means inexpensive frequency jamming methods can essentially blind our rather expensive guided munitions and even more expensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  In addition, potential enemy states – the Chinese in particular – have demonstrated that they possess anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) capable of destroying GPS satellites.  

DARPA politely refers to this worst-case scenario as the “GPS constellation being compromised.”

In order to counter these threats, which would effectively eliminate US real-time strike capabilities, DARPA has asked for companies and organizations to focus on creating hybrid-based solutions by creating advanced MEM-based components.  Essentially, DARPA is asking for a self-contained solution – including a guidance and navigation system on a chip – that is smaller, lighter and uses less power than any existing system, but also not vulnerable to vibrations and other environment factors that are common to warfare (like abrupt acceleration and deceleration).

These hybrid architectures, which possess all the capabilities of existing systems but none of the shortcomings, require extensive amounts of collaboration because the technical specifications as solicited by DARPA are rigorous and demanding by even their own standards of innovation.  After all, DARPA was founded to help the United States not with the battles of today, but the wars of tomorrow.

A micro-PNT device: Micro-Technology for Position, Navigation and Timing . Source: UC IrvineDARPA has entitled this effort the Micro-PNT, which translates into Micro-Technology for Position, Navigation and Timing program.  The initiative, which is being managed by DARPA program manager Andrei Shkel, has announced a number of positive gains in the past year including the development of a new micro-nuclear gyro.  This device, which achieves the desired performance metrics around navigation, measures the spin of atomic nuclei to gauge rotation. In addition, it uses considerably less power than existing navigation gyroscopes and has much smaller physical dimensions.

DARPA, through their Microsystems Technology Office (MTO), also recently announced a partnership with Honeywell.  More specifically, DARPA is working with measurement experts in their Aerospace Microelectronics & Precision Sensors division by awarding a contract for a Platform for Acquisition, Logging, and Analysis of Devices for Internal Navigation (PALADIN). This research will also be under DARPA’s Micro Rate Integrating Gyroscope (MRIG) program with a focus on developing MEM technologies.

The MRIG program, as mentioned earlier, is highly collaborative because the desired performance metrics are difficult to obtain.  A primary driver of this initiative is to reduce the amount of errors due to the environmental factors and electronic integration. This sort of technology has never been successfully applied on a micro level to a device with such harsh environmental factors. For example, Honeywell experts hope to use such systems underwater to assist divers conducting military operations.

Because of the complexities around achieving top performance in environmental conditions that are less than optimal, DARPA, in addition to Honeywell, has approached other defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and also involved academic America through the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Innovations based on improvements in MEM-based technologies – both incremental and strategic – will continue unabated into the future.  On one side, consumers will continue to drive improvements as they wish to maximize the flexibility of technology-oriented devices they purchase.  To a certain degree, this is driven by the marketing perception that smaller devices that offer flexibility around lifestyle and productivity goals without compromising quality are more desirable.  On the other end of the spectrum are military stakeholders who recognize that flexibility and performance is also desirable – not for the sake of marketability, but for the survival of the state.  Regardless of the motivation, the need to improve MEM-based technologies will be a critical factor driving innovation over the decade to come.

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