DARPA doubles down on anti-counterfeiting program

The Pentagon’s research arm has awarded two more contracts to support its quest to prevent counterfeit parts from entering the IT supply chain.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency this week gave contracts of $12.3 million to Northrop Grumman Systems and $6.8 million to SRI International under its Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense, or SHIELD, program.

Those come on the heels of DARPA’s award earlier this month of a $4.1 million contract to Charles Stark Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass., for the same program.

SHIELD aims to develop tiny components, known as dielets, that could be added to electronics parts during manufacturing or in another trusted setting. The dielets won’t have an electronic connection to the parts—and thus wouldn’t affect their functionality—but they would have an encryption engine and sensors that would detect tampering, such as revealing an exposure to light if the device had been opened up at some point between manufacture and delivery.

Counterfeit electronics have been a problem for the military for years. Faulty or fake electronics in a weapons system, sensor or other electronics system could endanger missions and lives. And counterfeit parts have flooded the supply chain in recent years, with blame often assigned to China but also to some dodgy practices by U.S. companies. 

With the SHIELD program, DARPA wants to develop dependable but inexpensive hardware dielets—costing less than a penny each—that could be scanned from a handheld device or larger device for large shipments. Following a scan, a handheld device such as a smartphone would communicate with the dielet, which would then send an encrypted message with information from its sensors. That response would show if any tampering occurred.  

DARPA wants the system to be able to identify counterfeit parts anywhere in the supply chain. And by awarding contracts to multiple companies, it evidently is hoping that a bit of competition will produce a solution more quickly.

About the Author

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

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