On Dec. 5, 2011, disaster struck the U.S. military. Iranian state media reported that a top secret U.S. Air Force stealth drone -- an RQ-170 Sentinel -- had been brought down and captured intact. One of America's most advanced pieces of unmanned, stealth airplane technology... was in the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
How could this happen? Engineers at the time speculated that Iran had tricked the Sentinel into switching into autopilot mode, jamming its communications to blind the drone, then feeding it false GPS data to convince it to land at an Iranian airbase. But today, the Pentagon is more interested in how to make sure that such a fiasco does not happen again.
Enter DARPA's mad scientists
According to the scientists at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, hi-tech weapons have become so pervasive on the modern battlefield that it's all but impossible to keep track of the stuff. It's not just drones they're worried about. Whether you're talking robots, rocket launchers, or radios -- if it's got electronics in it, eventually something hi-tech that we don't want to lose track of, will fall into the possession of someone... whom we'd rather never got hold of it.
The solution? Blow the stuff up. Or even better, make it melt away into nothingness all on its own -- leaving enemies, who thought they'd captured hi-tech American equipment, holding a hunk of useless, melted-down metal and carbon composite instead. This is the goal of DARPA's new VAnishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program, which aims to develop a new form of "sophisticated electronics" that, "when triggered ... degrade partially or completely into their surroundings."
Abracadabra -- Poof! It's gone!
Last month, DARPA took a step toward making this magic trick happen when it announced the award of a $4.7 million contract to defense contractor SRI International. Under this contract, SRI will attempt to design and build "transient electronics." Specifically, a silicon-air battery capable of powering electronics just like commercial off-the-shelf products, but also capable of self-destructing in response to an electronic signal or other predetermined "trigger." SRI joins Honeywell (NYSE: HON ) , which is already working on a similar project under a $2.5 million contract, in trying to take the concept to reality.
As the small size of these contracts suggests, we're only in the very earliest phases of R&D on "transient electronics" today. But if these companies are successful, their product could make the world a much safer place to live in.
Remember the 15,699 anti-tank missiles that America is getting ready to ship to Saudi Arabia? With a working "transient electronics" program, each and every one of them might be programmed to lock itself up if pointed at an Israeli tank. Or imagine if Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) sold F-35 fighter jets to a foreign power that turned unfriendly. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to "turn off" those airplanes with the touch of a button?
Surface-to-air missiles programmed to melt themselves into junk if terrorists point them at a commercial airliner? Encrypted communications gear that could be disabled if captured? There are any number of uses for this technology, if it can be perfected -- potentially saving lives, and probably safeguarding billions of dollars worth of research and development work by the defense contractors that produce the weapons in the first place.
As good uses for an initial investment of $7.2 million go (the total value of the SRI and Honeywell contracts), I can think of few better.
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