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Advanced microelectronics research back in style for photonic and RF integrated circuits

THE MIL & AERO VIDEO BLOG, 8 Oct. 2012. Microelectronics and embedded computing research seems to be coming back into style, based on at least three military research projects that have come to light over the past month, as John Keller reports this week in the Mil & Aero Video Blog.

It's heartening to see that microelectronics and embedded computing research seems to be coming back into style, based on at least three research projects on military embedded systems that have come to light over the past month or so.

In early October the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- or DARPA -- awarded contracts to two companies for an ambitious program to develop ways of increasing the power efficiency of high-performance embedded computing -- or HPEC -- from today's typical 1 billion floating point operations per second, per Watt, to ... if you can believe it ... seventy-five giga-FLOPS per Watt.

Imagine what that kind of technology could mean for military systems that demand the most aggressive size, weight, and power designs -- or SWAP. It promises revolutionary advancements in small power-efficient embedded computing for tiny unmanned vehicles, wearable computers, deployable sensors, and more.

Related stories

-- DARPA aims at increasing embedded computing power efficiency from 1 to 75 GFLOPS per Watt

-- Air Force kicks off ACE project to build advanced components for tomorrow's electronic warfare

-- DARPA RF-FPGA program awards six contracts to develop programmable RF front-ends.

The program is called Power Efficiency Revolution For Embedded Computing Technologies -- or PERFECT. The companies helping DARPA in its attempt to realize these ambitious goals are SRI International in Princeton, New Jersey, and Reservoir Labs in New York City.

Military microelectronics and embedded computing work of late certainly doesn't stop there.

Last month the U.S. Air Force kicked off a program called Advanced Components for Electronic Warfare, or ACE, which seeks to achieve nothing less than doing for photonic and electronic components in electronic warfare systems that the MIMIC program did for RF integrated circuits for advanced radar and communications systems.

Running the ACE program are experts at the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. ACE -- like the MIMIC program before it -- seeks to establish capabilities, infrastructure, and knowledge to design advanced electronic and photonic components for advanced EW applications at low costs and high yields.

Essentially the program is about manufacturing advanced EW components quickly, reliably, and inexpensively. I can only imagine what this kind of technology would mean for missile guidance, the ability to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defenses, and maintaining reliable wireless communications in the midst of aggressive electronic jamming.

In late August, DARPA struck again with contracts to six companies and universities to develop programmable RF front-end components that aim at reducing costs and development time for military communications, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence.

It's called the Radio Frequency Field Programmable Gate Arrays (RF-FPGA) program, and it attempts to do for RF and microwave technology what FPGAs have done for digital computing -- that is, increase capability and flexibility, reduce costs, cut development time, and ease development across a broad range of applications.

Those working on the DARPA RF-FPGA program are Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems; the University of Southern California; Boeing; Colorado Engineering; the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center; and Purdue University.

Okay, I know what you're thinking: DARPA is a research sandbox that tosses money at difficult engineering problems in hopes of yielding something useful; rarely do the results match up with the original promises.

Still, if DARPA and the Air Force can achieve even a tiny fraction of what they're setting out to do, it could mean fundamental design breakthroughs for the aerospace and defense industry that's under increasing pressure to deliver high-tech solutions quickly, and at affordable costs.

They've got their work cut out for them. Everyone knows that defense is a tough market these days, and bound to stay that way for quite a while. Maybe these research programs could make things just a little easier.

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