The DARPA initiative

The Department of Defense is betting big on computer technology, investing more than $17 million into universities around the country who develop it. Two of those universities happen to be here in Arizona.

Arizona State University and University of Arizona are getting a piece of the pie to continue their respective focuses on the future of computer technology and its position in the state as a growing tech hub. The DOD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the wing responsible for the awards, is pushing to support more advanced resources for academic and private institutions that are collaborating to produce more sophisticated processors and software that takes less energy to operate.

“These ideas will touch almost every device in consumer technology. It’s hard for me to think of one that it will not affect,” says Dan Bliss, whose official title is Associate Professor in the School of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering at Arizona State University. He’s also the Director of ASU’s Center for Wireless Information Systems and Computational Architectures (WISCA). What all that means is Bliss oversees the area of the university that’s getting the financial injection and encouragement thru DARPA.

“The computational systems that we are addressing on the program are the ones that people often do not realize exist. These are the ones that are in your phone, TV, car, planes, and almost every other device these days,” he points out.

While consumers could see the benefit of having this tech in their day-to-day gadgets, such as the aforementioned units, the Department of Defense is interested in how computer technology can produce systems that use less energy, like those used in smaller unmanned aerial vehicles.

Just recently it was announced that Tucson-area defense technology powerhouse Raytheon is investing in the expansion of its swarm drone unit. The focus on efficient and effective unmanned aircraft–be it a plane or a drone–is gaining momentum and grants like the one from DARPA will only lift it to new heights.

With the funds, schools like ASU and UofA are looking to build a new framework to bolster development. This will bleed into the next generation of computer processors that feature high-performance and embedded technology, and that are more power-efficient and easier to use. The big push for the DOD is to satisfy its thirst for greater computational power. Computer technology, which is being spearheaded with the grant is required by intricate signal processing applications.

Another key component of DARPA’s investment is to connect more with the electronics industry and commercial enterprises. It will bring universities, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Michigan, together with aerospace and defense tech companies such as General Dynamics Mission Systems and EpiSys Science Inc.

The type of processing this computer tech uses, heterogeneous processing, boosts performance and energy efficiency on a single circuit, performing up to 100 times better than your average laptop processing system, according to Bliss. Basically, computer tasks are done more quickly with less output, making them even more valuable in a world of growing dependence on faster and more effective systems. Heterogeneous processors are known to be difficult to program, so the $17 million bump will help provide software tools to simplify this pursuance.

“This is why we need to develop the framework. We will exercise these ideas by building a SoC using it for sophisticated software defined radio (SDR) applications,” says Bliss, pointing to the team’s emphasis on developing SoC or system on a chip tools. These integrated chips can be used in heterogeneous computing software for signal-processing applications such as video, cell phone, and other tech.

The ASU team is looking to develop tools that can use the heterogeneous computing software for signal-processing applications such as video, cell phone, and other tech. This will only improve high-performance communications as well as sensing and radar technologies, something that defense companies, and the D.O.D. as a whole, are looking to develop in a more advanced way.

Nick Esquer

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