DARPA VAPR vanishing electronics

Emerging Technology

Battlefield electronics that do their job, then vanish?

Planned obsolescence is a sore point with users of commercial electronics and information products, whether they’re recently purchased smartphones rendered “obsolete” by incremental upgrades or software releases that avoid backward-compatibility.

But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to add a new twist to the idea, developing electronics components that would, on purpose, become useless either on command or when they’ve gone unused for a pre-determined stretch of time.

The agency recently awarded BAE Systems Advanced Technologies a $4.5 million contract under its Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program to develop transient electronics that perform like commercial electronics but have what DARPA calls “limited device persistence.”

The idea behind VAPR is to keep electronics — including sensors ,environmental monitors, medical devices and the components of radios and phones — out of the hands of enemy combatants if they get lost or left behind on the battlefield. 

When it announced the launch of VAPR in January 2013, DARPA noted that sophisticated electronics — many of them small, inexpensive devices — have become ubiquitous on the battlefield. Those devices are essential to operations, but they also can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to keep track of. VAPR aims to develop a “revolutionary new class of electronics” devices that will work only as long as they are needed, then essentially melt away. Their demise could be programmed into the devices and adjusted on the go, or triggered by a command or changes to its environment, according to the program’s goals.

DARPA acknowledged in announcing the program that achieving its goal would be a challenge, likely requiring a multidisciplinary approach. But there is at least some precedence for dissolving electronics. DARPA itself has made some progress with biocompatible electronics that dissolve in a small amount of liquid and could be used to implant medical treatments in the field.

Some of the differences with products under the VAPR program are that they would have to be rugged enough to perform in the field — perhaps even passing MIL-SPEC-810 testing — while still being able to dissolve on command, and without liquid. 

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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