DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) has a proud history of making seminal investments in breakthrough technologies that ultimately became critical components in our electronics-filled world, from flash memory to radio frequency (RF) semiconductors to microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). But DARPA does not develop technologies on its own. The Agency’s approach is to set extremely challenging goals and then offer innovators at universities and companies the support they need to pursue those remote but exciting frontiers.
MTO’s commitment to that catalytic role—and the opportunity to engage with DARPA on the next generation of cutting-edge advances—is now expanding with the introduction of a simpler contracting approach for companies and other entities that have not previously worked with DARPA or had large contracts with the Defense Department.
This new approach aims to help the Agency and the nation take fuller advantage of the enormous depth and breadth of private-sector creativity that is currently brewing in the fast-evolving domains of networked sensors, spectrum access, machine learning, and hardware security. In particular, it aims to reduce barriers for innovative companies that don’t engage in the standard federal contracting process.
“We at DARPA have the privilege of pursuing research outside the confines of traditional corporate R&D to catalyze the kinds of technological shifts that can launch radically new electronic, photonic, and MEMS devices,” said MTO Director Bill Chappell. “So while DARPA’s mission explicitly precludes supporting incremental advances of the sort companies might pursue as part of their day-to-day business plans, DARPA and commercial companies both have a lot to gain when our long-term ambitions align.”
For example, DARPA recently worked with two small companies on twin advances that could enable next-generation radio frequency (RF) arrays for both military systems and commercial wireless communications. One company developed fabrication processes for profoundly small electronic structures, an innovation that led to a thriving manufacturing line for commercial products. The other created exceptionally high-speed, analog-to-digital converters that far outpace the previous state of the art, positioning that business to compete in the market for high-frequency (5G and beyond) products. Yet another company, which had never worked with the Defense Department, collaborated with DARPA to develop on-chip communication techniques now found in the company’s machine learning hardware—an advance that enabled new customer applications and will help address national security needs. Other collaborations have focused on networked sensors and detecting counterfeit electronics.
In all of these cases, teaming with DARPA allowed companies to pursue exceedingly difficult and sometimes revolutionary goals that they could not have achieved alone.
The newly announced approach takes advantage of DARPA’s so-called Other Transactional (OT) authority, which grants the Agency certain alternatives to provisions in the standard Defense Department contracting rules, known as the Federal Acquisition Regulation, or FAR. Under the terms of this legislatively granted authority, DARPA can craft customized, mutually beneficial agreements on intellectual property rights, for example, and negotiate flexible accounting and reporting requirements that more closely resemble conventional commercial standards.
The process is described in MTO’s Commercial Performer Program Announcement (http://bit.ly/2e2LKGg). Unlike the task-specific Broad Agency Announcements (BAAs) that DARPA offices periodically release, the Commercial Performer Program Announcement is open to any Office-relevant idea with the potential to yield revolutionary capabilities. Moreover, task-specific BAAs typically include dozens of pages of information and requirements and demand highly structured proposals running 20 pages or more. MTO’s significantly shortened Commercial Performer Program Announcement asks for submissions of no more than 10 pages.
In particular, the Office is asking performers to address the following kinds of questions:
- The Internet of Things (IoT) is growing in the commercial world, even as the Defense Department’s need for advanced distributed sensor networks continues to increase. How can commercially developed IoT sensor technologies help defense-related applications and what advances are possible in local data processing and cybersecurity for distributed networks?
- Wireless connectivity has become critical in both the private sector and government operations, for applications ranging from telephone and broadband communications to radar and situational awareness. What technologies could help ensure optimal and secure use of the increasingly congested electromagnetic spectrum?
- Electronics underpin critical applications in all sectors, from banking to aeronautics to defense. What capabilities can be leveraged to guarantee authentic, assured electronics that reliably operate as desired and as expected, both in hardware and in software?