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DARPA wants modular chips for its killer robots

"Chiplets" could better translate languages, identify objects, and coordinate UAV swarms.

To add smarts to machines, you need to design circuits and chips, a time-consuming and costly business. The US military's skunkworks arm, DARPA, wants to change all that with its new "CHIPS" program. The goal is to put entire circuit boards on modular chiplets, then tile them together to make a device. That would allow feats like "identifying objects and actions in real-time video feeds, real-time language translation, and coordinating motion on-the-fly among swarms of fast-moving unmanned aerial vehicles," DARPA said in a blog post.

Each chiplet would perform a specific function like data storage, computing and signal processing. Those could then be assembled in a mosaic configuration on an "interposer," or tiny circuit board, to perform specific functions. In addition to making it easier to design and add logic to robots, drones and other machines, the devices would potentially be faster and more efficient, since the overall circuit size is smaller.

A US Navy drone swarm takes flight.

Another problem DARPA's trying to solve is the cost and complexity of intellectual property (IP). Using a standard circuit board often requires the manufacturer to buy multiple patent licenses for unneeded functions. The US Department of Defense thinks that if chiplets are separated by function, it would reduce costs by limiting the required IP. "This should be a win for both the commercial and defense sectors," DARPA's Dr. Daniel Green asserts.

Though DARPA wants the tech for military and security use, it says the chiplets would be useful in the commercial, non-killer-robot sector, and it need private companies to help make it happen. "Key to the success of CHIPS will be standards and interfaces, and this means we will be working with a community, not all by ourselves," says Green. To facilitate that, it has posted a request for information (RFI) to get ideas from industry experts for chiplets that could be built at existing semiconductor foundries.

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