Microelectronics are a coveted product in the defence industry, and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has begun to enhance its survivability by making the components resistant to radiation when operating in harsh environments.

Our multi-polar world is competing on new fronts as two new unconventional domains – space and cyber – change the way militaries operate as they rush to leverage data and to benefit from global communications coverage.

High-performance computing relies heavily on internal microelectronics. Going forward, reliable performance will be driven by 3D heterogeneously integrated (3DHI) technologies that stack separately manufactured components, containing different semiconductors and materials, within a single package.

Critical applications will involve operating in extreme environments such as space, where components are subject to potentially destructive levels of radiation. With their multiple layers of vertically integrated circuits, complex interconnects, and diversity of materials, 3DHI components present new challenges for radiation testing and qualification.

The Advanced Sources for Single-event Effects Radiation Testing (ASSERT) programme is focused on assuring that advanced US microelectronic components can operate in harsh radiation environments with the highest-possible reliability. To facilitate the development of optimally radiation-hardened (rad-hard) components – and to rapidly deliver cutting-edge tech to the user – ASSERT seeks to disrupt the status quo in rad-hard design and qualification by integrating radiation testing throughout the design and development lifecycle.

“Today it takes on the order of five to 10 years to design, fully qualify, and deploy a rad-hard part. If you think about processors from 10 years ago, they are at least four orders of magnitude behind modern computing performance,” stated Dr. David Abe, ASSERT programme manager.

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Making microelectronics resistant by design

According to leading intelligence insight from GlobalData in its report on ‘Space Systems in Aerospace and Defense’, the company claims that “[t]he expansion of space systems has the potential to significantly improve situational awareness and enhance operational success.”

“Increasingly congested orbits, increased use of large constellations… and increasing levels of space debris will impact the effectiveness and reliability of space-based systems. Many nations have significantly increased their presence in and access to space.”

ASSERT will help the US strengthen its microelectronics survivability, therefore enhancing its processing reliability in an uncertain, and often threatening, emerging domain.

“To speed the time to deployment, the goal is to make radiation testing an integral part of the design, fabrication, and development processes, instead of waiting until the end to do the final testing,” Abe added. “In terms of the processing and reliability of space-based assets, the disparity is tremendous between what’s available and qualified today and where we need to be. With ASSERT, we’re working to close that gap.”