In the old television version of “Mission Impossible,” Jim Phelps’ tape self-destructs after the voice says, “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”
Now if the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is successful, not only will the tape self-destruct, but the whole device will disappear.
The project is called the Vanishing Programmable Resources program, and it’s the brainchild of the federal defense agency charged with keeping the U. S. military current on all advanced technology.
DARPA says there is a strategic purpose for the program.
The project is being undertaken “with the aim of revolutionizing the state of the art in transient electronics or electronics capable of dissolving into the environment around them,” the agency said.
“Transient electronics developed under VAPR should maintain the current functionality and ruggedness of conventional electronics, but, when triggered, be able to degrade partially or completely into their surroundings. Once triggered to dissolve, these electronics would be useless to any enemy who might come across them,” DARPA said.
“The commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, electronics made for everyday purchases are durable and last nearly forever,” said DARPA program manager Alicia Jackson.
“DARPA is looking for a way to make electronics that last precisely as long as they are needed. The breakdown of such devices could be triggered by a signal sent from command or any number of possible environmental conditions, such as temperature,” Jackson said in a statement on the program.
Military analyst and Long War Journal editor Bill Roggio says he believes the DARPA press release is for real.
“I am sure it is true, DARPA investigates a whole sort of nutty ideas,” Roggio said.
Military and intelligence analyst and Geostrategy Direct publisher Bill Gertz believes that the technology is possible.
“I believe it’s doable,” Gertz said.
“Sure it’s possible. Film used to be made by celluloid, and aging film always broke down. It’s entirely possible for celluloid to be made strong enough to actually be the functioning components of an electronic device,” added William, a polymer chemist credited with over 40 patents who also served as a senior research specialist for a major U. S. chemical company.
He asked to be identified only by his first name for security.
“It’s also possible to build electronic gear from other materials that can break down after a designated time,” William said.
Jackson reported on the project’s website that DARPA wants the technology to be developed from materials that don’t need submersion in water to dissolve.
This prompts speculation that the electronic devices would be made from plastics or metals.
William says it’s possible that the electronic gear can be made from a material that can be packed in an air-tight case and dissolve if exposed to oxygen. The devices can also be made out of metals.
“Sure, metals can be used. They can be developed to break down over time or manufactured with an embedded chip that can receive a signal from a remote location and detonate on command,” William said.
The DARPA program suggests that the agency is looking to develop electronic components that can respond to a “remote sensor.”
“The program seeks to culminate in a technology demonstration that builds a circuit representative of an environmental or biomedical sensor that is able to communicate with a remote user,” DARPA said.
William says, however, that an electronic component that could detonate by a remote signal could present difficulties for any group using the devices.
“If they detonate by an electronic signal, that signal is likely sent through the air. Any signal in the air, even if it’s encoded or encrypted, can be intercepted and decoded,” William said.
“That means it can be co-opted and used by the other side,” William said.
Roggio agrees and doubts the safety or logic of deploying the technology.
“In my opinion, this is a bad idea, because if you made this have a kill switch – one activated remotely – then the equipment is susceptible to being hacked to kill itself,” Roggio said.