DARPA’s drive to keep the microelectronics revolution at full speed builds its own momentum

To perpetuate the pace of innovation and progress in microelectronics technology over the past half-century, it will take an enormous village rife with innovators. This week, about 100 of those innovators throughout the broader technology ecosystem, including participants from the military, commercial, and academic sectors, gathered at DARPA headquarters at the kickoff meeting for the Agency’s new CHIPS program, known in long form as the Common Heterogeneous Integration and Intellectual Property (IP) Reuse Strategies program.

Many future microelectronics systems could be assembled with a library of plug-and-play chiplets that combine their respective modular functions with unprecedented versatility.

Many future microelectronics systems could be assembled with a library of plug-and-play chiplets that combine their respective modular functions with unprecedented versatility.

“Now we are moving beyond pretty pictures and mere words, and we are rolling up our sleeves to do the hard work it will take to change the way we think about, design, and build our microelectronic systems,” said Dan Green, the CHIPS program manager. The crux of the program is to develop a new technological framework in which different functionalities and blocks of intellectual property—among them data storage, computation, signal processing, and managing the form and flow of data—can be segregated into small chiplets, which then can be mixed, matched, and combined onto an interposer, somewhat like joining the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Conceivably an entire conventional circuit board with a variety of different but full-sized chips could be shrunk down onto a much smaller interposer hosting a huddle of yet far smaller chiplets.

Central to the design and intention of the program is the creation of a new community of researchers and technologists that mix-and-match mindsets, skillsets, technological strengths, and business interests. That is why the dozen selected prime contractors for the program include large defense companies (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing), large microelectronics companies (Intel, Micron, and Cadence Design Systems), other semiconductor design players (Synopsys, Intrinsix Corp., and Jariet Technologies), and university teams (University of Michigan, Georgia Institute of Technology, and North Carolina State University). What’s more, many of these prime contractors will be working with additional partners who will extend the village of innovators working on the CHIPS program.

“If the CHIPS program is successful, we will gain access to a wider variety of specialized blocks that we will be able to integrate into our systems more easily and with lower costs,” said Green. “This should be a win for both the commercial and defense sectors.”

Among the specific technologies that could emerge from this newly formed research community are compact replacements for entire circuit boards, ultrawideband radio frequency (RF) systems, which require tight integration of fast data converters with powerful processing functions, and, by combining chiplets that provide different accelerator and processor functions, fast-learning systems for teasing out interesting and actionable data from much larger volumes of mundane data. “By bringing the best design capabilities, reconfigurable circuit fabrics, and accelerators from the commercial domain, we should be able to create defense systems just by adding smaller specialized chiplets,” said Bill Chappell, director of DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office.

“The CHIPS program is part of DARPA’s much larger effort, the Electronics Resurgence Initiative, in which we are striving to build an electronics community that mixes the best of the commercial and defense capabilities for national defense,” Chappell said. “The ERI, which will involve roughly $200 million annual investments for the next four years, will nurture research in materials, device designs, and circuit and system architecture. The next round of investments are expected this September as part of the broader initiative.”

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