MTO continues to invest in new semiconductor materials, including its big effort in gallium nitride. A DARPA initiative last year demonstrated what it claimed was a chip industry first GaN-on-diamond transistor that could find its way into military RF systems. GaN devices could also be used in power electronic systems, Chappell says.
MTO has ended its carbon nanotube and graphene research programs, but continues to fund spintronics research. "No one knows what will replace silicon," Chappell says, but DARPA can help spur adoption of whatever technology looks most promising.
While MTO continues to invest in device technology, he concedes that the military has failed to confront the technological complexity, most of it brought about by software technology. He acknowledges that the services have largely failed to take advantage of an emerging "software-defined world." The result has been skyrocketing weapon costs.
Addressing the issue during the DARPA technology exposition, Prabhaker encouraged contractors, "I'm hoping you software guys are going to fix that."
As MTO gradually shifts its emphasis from hardware to software, Chappell adds that it wants to invest more resources in algorithm development and circuit design. One example is the growing need for algorithms needed to enable "dynamic spectrum sharing." That capability would allow the military to squeeze more capacity out of increasingly scarce electromagnetic spectrum. The effort is gaining urgency as the military is being pressed to vacate "beachfront" spectrum being designated for commercial wireless applications.
Meanwhile DARPA is also looking farther afield as the globalization of technology gains momentum. "In the past we sort of buried our head in the sand," Prabhaker explains. Now, there's a "willingness to try to adapt, because we don't have a patent on good ideas."
Ultimately, the agency is charged with avoiding technological surprise by "creating surprise." MTO's pivotal investments in key chip technologies helped lay the groundwork for decades of semiconductor innovation. Without FinFET technology initially funded by MTO, Moore's Law would have "crashed" by now, Chappell asserted during a media briefing. "That's the type of impact were looking for" again.