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U.S. defense researchers say future is in analog

Posted: 29 Aug 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:analog nodes? mission-critical ISR? CMOS?

The research arm in charge of developing military technology under the United States Department of Defense has launched a new program that aims to build power-efficient, analog processors that do not have speed limitations common among its digital counterparts.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said it will utilize the results of UPSIDE, short for Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation, to improve current mission-critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data gathering and analysis methods.

The program employs probabilistic inference as its fundamental computational model to drive down power consumption. Inference can be implemented directly in approximate precision by traditional semiconductors as well as by new kinds of emerging devices. This approach aims to compute inference directly and more naturally through a number of interconnected analog nodes.

"A single inference operation performed in digital CMOS could involve hundreds of operations. However, the inference operation can be more naturally performed directly by a group of coupled analog devices, reducing both power and the number of discrete operations," said DARPA program manager Dan Hammerstrom.

"Utilizing coupled analog devices to represent data in a non-Boolean form for high-order computation is expected to provide orders of magnitude improvements in the power efficiency of data processing."

According to an agency announcement, the definition of emerging devices is broad to allow developers to propose a wide range of parts. But they cannot be CMOS-based, at least not without additional specialized processing steps, and cannot be on the mainstream ITRS roadmap. Analog-based devices such as memristors and spin torque oscillators could possibly be used to replace CMOS-based digital processors to accelerate video and imagery analysis in ISR systems, according to Hammerstrom.

Existing R&D
DARPA's budget for the UPSIDE program won't be disclosed until the solicitation phase is completed. Darpa's initial goal is to encourage participation by science and technology-based firms and educational institutions.

No companies or organizations have yet been enlisted to work on the analog program. DARPA said it has had discussions with a number of groups, both in academia and industry to lay the ground work for the program. Based on those discussions, analog technologies are available for ISR applications but needed further development, Hammerstrom said.

"DARPA saw this as an opportunity to change the paradigm of computation with the UPSIDE program, particularly in the area of image processing, which is critical to the DoD," he said. The agency thinks there are "many potential participants that we have not talked to who could contribute to the UPSIDE program."

Probabilistic technology is not new, and some analog chip companies may already be exploring its benefits. Analog Devices, for instance, last year acquired Lyric Semiconductor, a privately held company that was described as having developed "an innovative set of techniques with the potential to achieve an order of magnitude improvement in power efficiency in mixed-signal processing and enable additional signal processing functionality in a broad set of applications."

- Ismini Scouras
??EE Times

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