DARPA’s CHIPS Program Aims for Mix-and-Match Functionalities

By John Russell

August 29, 2017

Last week the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held the kickoff meeting for its new CHIPS (Common Heterogeneous Integration and Intellectual Property (IP) Reuse Strategies) program focused on developing mix-and-match functional ‘chiplets’ that may be combined as needed. A dozen prime contractors have been named, among them Intel, Micron, and Cadence Design Systems.

As explained by DARPA, 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.”

The other designated contractors include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing, Synopsys, Intrinsix Corp., and Jariet Technologies, University of Michigan, Georgia Institute of Technology, and North Carolina State University. Central to the design and intention of the program, says DARPA, is the creation of a new community of researchers and technologists that mix-and-match mindsets, skillsets, technological strengths, and business interests. The prime contractors are expected to help build this community by working with others.

“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. “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. 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, says DARPA, 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.” (See HPCwire article, DARPA Continues Investment in Post-Moore’s Technologies)

The scope of DARPA’s ambition with ERI is perhaps best captured in this paragraph from its initial announcement of the program:

“To appreciate the magnitude of the change the initiative aims to achieve, it helps to look back at the last such paradigm shift, which quietly became public on July 1, 1948. That’s when the word “transistor” made its understated debut on page D4 of the New York Times. That day’s “The News of Radio” column started out with descriptions of two new radio shows but ended with a bit of obscure technology news: “A device called the transistor, which has several applications in radio where a vacuum tube ordinarily is employed, was demonstrated for the for the first time yesterday.” The shift from vacuum tubes to transistors would prove monumental, kicking off more than 70 years of electronics improvements based on these increasingly minuscule components.”

Link to CHIPS release: https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2017-08-25

Link to ERI release: https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2017-06-01

Link to CHIPS slide presentation: https://www.darpa.mil/attachments/CHIPSoverview%20Sept212016ProposerDay.pdf

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