Virtual Lab Aids in Detecting Compromised Microchips in Military Applications

Integrated circuits, or microchips, are found in nearly all appliances and devices today. With support from DARPA’s Integrity and Reliability of Integrated Circuits program, researchers from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) are working together to find new ways to test the integrity and reliability of microchips in cyber systems and military weapons.

Unfortunately, not many techniques today can determine if microchips have been compromised during design and production. DARPA has developed a virtual lab with help from the NSWC and ARFL to ensure performance of these microchips in military applications.

“Integrated circuits form the backbone of all military IT and electronics systems, and ensuring that these microchips are free from unauthorized tampering is essential to national security. Improving chip intrusion detection and assessment speed across the investigative community will help prevent the installation of counterfeit chips in military systems and enhance overall confidence in the electronics supply chain,” Kerry Bernstein, DARPA program manager, said.

The virtual lab encompasses a computer-aided design (CAD) and a file-sharing environment to transfer data collected during microchip analysis and debugging. A website has also been created to allow government researchers and program performers to communicate.

“DARPA’s virtual lab is creating new methods for researchers to test electronic systems with substantial complexity, giving rise to innovative reliability analysis tools. These tools are applied to test articles distributed by DARPA to its performers, who stress the chips under loads likely to be seen during normal operating conditions,” according to DARPA.

One test, known as advanced failure analysis, uses high-tech equipment such as multiple scanning optical microscope techniques. Using this analysis tool, the research team determined the design fault in the microchips and successfully corrected the problem.

“As we seek to authenticate, fix and/or remove suspected counterfeit microchips through these efforts, broadening the availability of non-invasive tools, techniques and related findings across the DoD is essential. Given how widespread microchips are, and their vulnerability to compromise, the numbers don’t seem to be on our side. Through the virtual lab, however, we can help shift the balance in our favor. By extending testing resources to our Service partners and working together more effectively, we can ensure the reliability of our most important electronic systems,” Bernstein added.


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