DoD Seeks New Chip Technologies

While the government expects Moore's Law to hold for another decade, DARPA director Robert Leheny said the Defense Department is already hunting for alternatives to conventional processor-fabrication methods.

PALO ALTO, Calif.— Conventional methods of fabricating semiconductors will remain the same for about a decade, but the Department of Defenses research agency is already considering alternatives, a top government official said Tuesday afternoon.

Robert Leheny, deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), told an audience at the Hot Chips conference here that the government thinks Moores Law will remain viable for about a decade, as the semiconductor industry pushes to 0.20-micron line widths, or even 0.10-micron.

Beyond that point, however, the semiconductor industry must seek alternatives. And although the industrys finest scientists are involved in hunting down a solution, DARPA is investigating a variety of alternative technologies, Leheny said.

DARPAs role is to develop technologies that can be used to bolster the U.S. military forces, especially to improve their ability to process intelligence. For example, AWAC radar aircraft and Aegis cruisers can be used to gather intelligence on enemy forces, but the agencys new emphasis is on small, unmanned devices that can be used in place of soldiers or more-expensive intelligence devices.

"The underlying idea is to reach out into the analog world with an analog sensor and capture a single characteristic of something," Leheny said. "Typically, [the subject] being observed is recorded using an analog signal, which then must be converted to digital and then sent to the processor and processed for our purposes."

One example would be a drone that could autonomously seek out and report what it sees, in human terms: "Is it a tank, is it a missile, is it a school bus?" Leheny said. The goal: the elimination of misidentified targets, such as the Iranian airliner the U.S. military accidentally shot down in 1988.

Next page: DARPAs top technology prospects.