See that black speck on the Lincoln’s penny-minted nostril? And on the right, notice another three of those specks comfortably framed by the eye of a needle? Those semiconductor chiplets, or “dielets” as DARPA Program Manager Kerry Bernstein calls them, could become Lilliputian electronic tamper-watching sentinels affixed to virtually every chip built into commercial and military systems. Their future job? To safeguard against an expanding arena of 21st century crime that could threaten the trustworthiness of just about anything with a chip in it—from smart credit cards to engine- controlling automotive computers to F-16 fighter-jet radar systems.
Counterfeit, cloned, and otherwise doctored electronic chips already are circulating in markets and the problem is only likely to grow in the coming years. Shown here are dummy dielets that DARPA-supported researchers have produced to help them learn how to dice, sort, pick, place and otherwise handle such teensy components, which would affix to individual chips with a footprint the size of a dust speck.
If fully developed as envisioned in DARPA’s Supply Chain Hardware Integrity of Electronics Defense (SHIELD) program, each of these dielets will host up to 100,000 transistors and have features and functions remarkable for their scale, among them two-way radio communication, on-board encryption, an energy harvesting function that casts away the need for a battery, and passive sensors for tamper-detection—all the while consuming less than 50 microwatts and costing the equivalent of the portion of a penny occupied by Lincoln’s head, that is, a fraction of a cent. “We are on track to build the world’s smallest highly integrated computer chip,” says Kerry. “If we succeed, then an untrained operator at any place along the supply chain will be able to interrogate the authenticity of any component used by the Defense Department or in the commercial sector, and get high-confidence results back immediately, on site, securely and essentially for free.”