Underwater Navy drones: Can electronics deter illegal seizures and technology theft?

-December 26, 2016

Recently the Chinese Navy boldly seized a US Navy underwater drone in international waters near the Philippine Islands violating international law and threatening illegal access to our military technology in that device.

It seems to me that the US Navy probably has security measures embedded into these types of devices to prevent any technology access, but I thought it would be interesting to investigate some possible design ideas that I have researched to prevent technology theft, as well as elicit creative ideas from you, our tech savvy EDN audience.

Commercial drones in the water

First, I would like to highlight a related drone company, started by a graduate of the University of Arizona College of Engineering that I met at a homecoming breakfast in Tucson, AZ recently. Tony Mulligan is the CEO of the company called Hydronalix which he founded in Tucson in 2009.

Recently the Department of the Navy awarded the company a “Small Business Innovation Research” contract to upgrade what they call a micro-unmanned surface vehicle that would perform situational awareness, communications, and mine hunting functionality. See that article here.

Hydronalix has an autonomous drone technology (Figure 1) based upon their EMILY robotic lifeguard product, which is remote-controlled by a wireless transmitter (Figure 2).


Figure 1 The Autonomous Mobile Buoy



Figure 2 Emily’s remote control transmitter

You can see a demonstration of the Autonomous Mobile Buoy here. Their unmanned surface vessel (USV) is being used by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This is one example of a basic technology that can be used to detect mines, hunt submarines, or even for surveillance for ship safety such as the US Navy is using.

Cyber security for drones

Since the China incident happened, I thought I would look into some forms of intellectual property and technology protection that may be deployed in some of these types of devices. Of course encryption is a typical first line of defense in these types of devices.

A second line of defense for proprietary technology might be needed as well. One of the first solutions that I have found is a disintegrating computer chip developed by a Xerox company called PARC. Make the computer chip out of tempered glass and if it is tampered with, an automatic command will commence to shatter the IC in 5 seconds via a laser triggering a photo diode, which switches on the self-destruct circuit. See this video for a demonstration.

Other methods that have been researched include a US Air Force experiment with a small resistor-based heater that would heat the semiconductor junctions up well beyond their safe operating life temperature, thus preventing reverse engineering tampering.

DARPA also has a program called Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR). Most of this is not really new, but electronics semiconductor technology has advanced so quickly that these types of solutions can be smaller, more efficient and faster-acting than ever before.

What about a design that would inject an ESD-type of pulse into the entire circuit board that would exceed any IC ESD safety levels and destroy all the chips? Filing off or removing IC marking is another simple idea. So technology thieves beware. Electronics technology has progressed immensely toward tamperproof solutions.

Please share with us your ideas and experience on this topic.

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