US Military Wants 'Mission Impossible' Self-Destructing Devices

An Army Evaluation Task Force Soldier at Fort Bliss conducts training with an unattended ground sensor. Future sensors could be smaller and vanish upon command.

Self-destructing tapes from the "Mission Impossible" TV series and films served fictional spies well during the Cold War. Today, the U.S. military wants a modern version of vanishing electronics that are able to disappear upon command in the environment or a human body.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for such spy craft technology at a time when swarms of electronic sensors and communication devices already help U.S. troops hunt enemies, keep track of friendly forces and monitor threats from nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. Futuristic electronics able to self-destruct upon command would help prevent devices from falling into enemy hands and littering the environment.

"The [Vanishing, Programmable Resources] program seeks to address this pervasive challenge by developing electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner," DARPA said in a special notice on Jan. 25.

Disposable electronics could either degrade into environmentally harmless substances or get absorbed into the human body if they act as biomedical implants, DARPA said. The idea could fit with another DARPA project aimed at making "nanosensors" capable of monitoring or even fixing the human body like a swarm of tiny doctors.

Lab versions of vanishing electronics already include microchip components, biomedical implants and even a 64-pixel digital camera. But DARPA points out that degradable electronics based on polymeric or biologically derived materials often perform worse than traditional electronics or prove less durable — a problem for U.S. military standards.

Researchers must also tackle the challenge of making a new generation of vanishing electronics that can self-destruct upon command, rather than simply building varieties that slowly disappear over time.

The "Vanishing, Programmable Resources" program has planned a Proposer's Day on Feb. 14 at the Capital Conference Center in Arlington, Va. — a day for researchers and companies to find out more about DARPA's vision of the future.

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