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DARPA Grant Recipients are Producing a New Generation of Microelectronics

Years before the CHIPS and Science Act was negotiated and passed by Congress, Arizona State University systems engineering Professor Daniel Bliss was already designing and producing a new generation of microelectronics. 

The recipient of grants from the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, totaling $22.4 million, Bliss is now working on two advanced computing projects, both of which are producing reimagined "chips," or microprocessors, that are the foundation for most of today's electronics - from supercomputers to smart devices to the technology that makes autonomous vehicles self-driving. 

The first project, supported by a $17 million grant, is called Domain-Focused Advanced Software Reconfiguration Heterogeneous, or DASH, and it's part of the Domain-Specific System-on-Chip (DSSoC) program funded by DARPA's Electronics Resurgence Initiative.

Computational architecture has become more complex in design and manufacture, triggering an escalation in power constraints. Bliss and his team at ASU's Center for Wireless Information Systems and Computational Architectures, or WISCA, have been working to create a new platform for complex, high-performance processors that are more power efficient and easier to use, with a new kind of chip that provides an alternative processing pathway.

According to Bliss, the program supports research into flexible chip architectures that can be "reconfigured on the fly to carry out specialized tasks." So WISCA is developing radio chips that can mix and filter signals using software instead of hardware, allowing more devices to transmit and receive signals without interference - potentially improving mobile and satellite communications.

"Typically, you must pick either rigid, efficient processing or flexible processing that is 100 times less efficient," Bliss said. "With our approach, we simultaneously enable both characteristics by integrating advanced accelerators; dynamic, intelligent resource management; and sophisticated runtime software. Our advances have the potential to dramatically improve systems for everything from your cell phone or WiFi router to sophisticated DoD satellites."

The DASH-DSSoC project also has implications for retooling U.S. electronics manufacturing to be more competitive on the world stage and to abate challenges to electronics security.

Bliss, a faculty member of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, leads a team composed of university and corporate partners, including University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, University of Arizona, University of Texas-Austin, Dash Integrated Circuits, Arm and General Dynamics Mission Systems.

The acronym for the WISCA portion of the Space-BACN project is COCHON - French for "pig." Image courtesy of DARPA

Last year, Bliss received another $5.4 million from DARPA for Space-BACN, or Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node, the first phase of an initiative that will connect low Earth-orbit satellites with each other and their Earth-bound operators. The project builds on the research from DASH-DSSoC, especially in the area of filtering signals to reduce interference.

In a humorous nod to the project's name, the WISCA team named its portion of the Space-BACN research Configurable Optical Communications via Heterogeneous-processing Optimized Node, or COCHON, which is French for "pig."

Space-BACN extends the processor development for DASH and has the potential to efficiently provide the embedded processing capabilities needed for a wide range of applications, "from 6G to flying cars," Bliss said.

"Optical link processor technology has the potential to revolutionize space communications," he said, "enabling the exchange of large quantities of data between satellites."

ASU's WISCA is the only university-led research recipient of a Space-BACN project, with the other funding going to University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, University of Arizona, Jariet Technologies and DASH Tech Integrated Circuits.

"The WISCA team will enable a revolution in flexible space optical communications for the next generation of low-cost satellites by developing a new class of processor that can nearly instantly reconfigure while being almost as efficient as a full-custom, single-purpose chip," Bliss said.

"In developing our new modem processor, we provide a path to quickly switch between standards and even implement new standards after the system is built and launched." 

The initial test chip for the optical link modem processor was sent to GlobalFoundries for manufacturing at the end of 2022. The prototype should be back at WISCA and ready for testing in late spring.

"Because nearly every product - such as phones, cars, watches or even toasters - in modern life has embedded processing, our efforts have the potential to broadly improve everything by both reducing power consumption and by enabling new applications that historically were thought too complicated to even be possible," Bliss said.

Building on the work begun under ERI, Bliss leads DASH Tech Integrated Circuits, an ASU spinoff focused on providing efficient, high-performance processing for sensing and communications applications including wireless, radio and optical communications, autonomous vehicles, health sensors, augmented reality and positioning and navigation. The company is located in Phoenix.

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