Back to news

November 7, 2018 | International, C4ISR

Bringing Photonic Signaling to Digital Microelectronics

DARPA program seeks to unleash the performance of modern multi-chip modules by integrating optical signaling at the chip-level



Parallelism – or the act of several processors simultaneously executing on an application or computation – has been increasingly embraced by the microelectronics industry as a way of sustaining demand for increased system performance. Today, parallel computing architectures have become pervasive across all application domains and system scales – from multicore processing units in consumer devices to high-performance computing in DoD systems. However, the performance gains from parallelism are increasingly constrained not by the computational limits of individual nodes, but rather by the movement of data between them. When residing on modern multi-chip modules (MCMs), these nodes rely on electrical links for short-reach connectivity, but once systems scale to the circuit board level and beyond, the performance of electrical links rapidly degrades, requiring large amounts of energy to move data between integrated circuits. Expanding the use of optical rather than electrical components for data transfer could help significantly reduce energy consumption while increasing data capacity, enabling the advancement of massive parallelism.

“Today, microelectronic systems are severely constrained by the high cost of data movement, whether measured in terms of energy, footprint, or latency,” said Dr. Gordon Keeler, program manager in DARPA's Microsystems Technology Office (MTO). “Efficient photonic signaling offers a path to disruptive system scalability because it eliminates the need to keep data local, and it promises to impact data-intensive applications, including machine learning, large scale emulation, and advanced sensors.”

Photonic transceiver modules already enable optical signaling over long distances with high bandwidth and minimal loss using optical fiber. Bottlenecks result, however, when data moves between optical transceivers and advanced integrated circuits in the electrical domain, which significantly limits performance. Integrating photonic solutions into the microelectronics package would remove this limitation and enable new levels of parallel computing.

A new DARPA program, the Photonics in the Package for Extreme Scalability (PIPES) program, seeks to enable future system scalability by developing high-bandwidth optical signaling technologies for digital microelectronics. Working across three technical areas, PIPES aims to develop and embed integrated optical transceiver capabilities into cutting-edge MCMs and create advanced optical packaging and switching technologies to address the data movement demands of highly parallel systems. The efficient, high-bandwidth, package-level photonic signaling developed through PIPES will be important to a number of emerging applications for both the commercial and defense sectors.

The first technical area of the PIPES program is focused on the development of high-performance optical input/output (I/O) technologies packaged with advanced integrated circuits (ICs), including field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), graphics processing units (GPUs), and application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). Beyond technology development, the program seeks to facilitate a domestic ecosystem to support wider deployment of resulting technologies and broaden their impact.

Projections of historic scaling trends predict the need for enormous improvements in bandwidth density and energy consumption to accommodate future microelectronics I/O. To help address this challenge, the second technical area will investigate novel component technologies and advanced link concepts for disruptive approaches to highly scalable, in-package optical I/O for unprecedented throughput.

The successful development of package-level photonic I/O from PIPES' first two technical areas will create new challenges for systems architects. The development of massively interconnected networks with distributed parallelism will create hundreds to thousands of nodes that will be exceedingly difficult to manage. To help address this complexity, the third technical area of the PIPES program will focus on the creation of low-loss optical packaging approaches to enable high channel density and port counts, as well as reconfigurable, low-power optical switching technologies.

A full description of the program is available in the Broad Agency Announcement. For more information, please visit:

On the same subject

  • Maintainers Maintain Mission Readiness

    August 15, 2019 | International, Aerospace

    Maintainers Maintain Mission Readiness

    By Airman 1st Class Adriana Barrientos Fighter jets and heavies can rule the skies, but they need to get there first. It takes strict attention to detail from aircraft maintainers to service aircraft in order to launch them to the battlefield. Airmen from the 703rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron identified and fixed a misplaced spoiler control rod on the E-3 Sentry during a Home Station Check at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, June 3, 2019. Aircraft maintainers play a huge role when it comes to mission readiness. After all, they are responsible for the upkeep of aircraft that fly through the skies. It's imperative for these Airmen to be meticulous, confident and disciplined in order to carry out their mission— inspect aircraft and troubleshoot problems. The 703rd AMXS supports JBER's worldwide contingency and maintenance operations for the 3rd Wing, 11th Air Force, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. They are responsible for the C-17 Globemaster III, E-3 Sentry, and C-130 Hercules. Crew chiefs assigned to the 703rd AMXS are assigned to either the 962nd or the 517th Aircraft Maintenance Units. One type of aircraft maintained by the 962nd AMU is the E-3 Sentry. As an airborne warning and control system or AWACS aircraft, it performs an essential mission, distinguishing between friendly and enemy activity. It also provides airborne command and control in addition to conducting all-altitude, all-weather surveillance. “I come to work and figure out what the flying and maintenance schedule is for the day,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. John Hays, 962nd AMU crew chief lead for two E-3B/C aircraft. “On a typical day, we launch one of the jets for a four to six-hour sortie and recover the jet towards the end of the shift. Once the jet lands, the other crew chiefs and I will perform a post-flight inspection and fix anything we find.” As a crew chief, Hays performs visual inspections of the entire structure of the aircraft. These include calendar inspections, which serve to provide constant observation of all components of the aircraft to ensure reliability. It was June 3rd when an issue with the jet's spoiler rod was identified during an in-depth calendar inspection, known as a Home Station Checks. “Calendar inspections vary, but a really important one is the Home Station Check that is completed every 180 days,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brandon Solomons, 962nd AMU crew chief. “One of the biggest things we look for during these inspections is irregular rubbing of moving components. During our mid-shift, Senior Airman Eric Goodholm noticed one of the rods was pushed up against another component in the wing called the flap track gearbox.” In this case, it was the spoiler control rod, which was not damaged but could have potentially caused a major problem during the flight. “A spoiler control rod basically helps lift the spoiler— a vital flight control surface that allows the jet to turn in flight, as well as a brake or slow down the jet during approach and landing,” said Solomon. “The pushrod is not supposed to rub on the gearbox, so myself and our production superintendent performed further investigations,” said Hays. “I identified that the two outboard spoilers follow up pushrods were connected incorrectly to the idler arm, therefore causing the pushrod to rub on the gearbox.” The total time to fix the issue was a combined eight hours, to include an operation check. “I led the fix of the malfunction along with Staff Sgt. Solomons,” said Hays. “We disconnected and reconnected the pushrods to the idler arm correctly, which provided the proper clearance from the gearbox.” These kinds of calendar inspections allow maintainers to identify defects before malfunctions cause serious danger or harm to the aircraft or personnel. In any case, a setback with the aircraft is a setback to the mission. “After ensuring the rod wasn't damaged, we got in touch with Tinker Air Force Base, and they found the same problem on three of their jets,” said Solomons. “This discovery drove a Time Change Technical Order, implemented to prevent flight binding across the fleet.” Time Change Technical Orders, or periodic updates to aircraft that authorize the modification of a system, were pushed to keep the operational tempo on track. As an air defense system, E-3s can detect, identify and track airborne enemy forces far from the boundaries of the United States or NATO countries. It can direct fighter-interceptor aircraft to these enemy targets. Thus being a vital component to the mission in day to day operations. “Something like this could have been easily overlooked, but Senior Airman Goodholm is very thorough and paid great attention to detail,” said Solomons. After the team made modifications and the pushrods were properly connected, a rig check was performed to verify if the spoilers were in the proper configuration. “I can say Senior Airman Goodholm, Staff Sgt. Hays and I contributed by identifying and planning a course of action to fix this issue, but it was an effort as an AMU that fixed the discrepancy,” said Solomons. “With the unit's team effort and strong leadership the problem was identified, fixed and the jet was able to go and perform the mission again.” General maintenance actions and inspections by not only the 703rd AMXS, but all maintainers require attention to detail day in and day out. The lives of the crew and mission success depend on it.

  • Australia selects Boeing Apache as next armed reconnaissance helicopter

    January 20, 2021 | International, Aerospace

    Australia selects Boeing Apache as next armed reconnaissance helicopter

    By: Nigel Pittaway MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia has selected Boeing's AH-64E Apache Guardian as it's next armed reconnaissance helicopter, replacing its Airbus Helicopters Tiger fleet under the Land 4503 program estimated to be worth AU$4-5 billion (U.S. $3–3.8 billion). The selection of the Apache follows the release of a request for information in July 2019 and was announced by Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds on Friday. The RFI called for 29 helicopters, with 24 to be based at a single location with two operational armed recon helo squadrons, and a five for training Army pilots and battle captains at the Australian Army Aviation Training Centre at Oakey, Queensland. The two operational Tiger squadrons are currently based in Darwin in the Northern Territory as part of the 1st Aviation Regiment. The RFI also stipulated an initial operational capability, represented by 12 helicopters, in 2026; and final operational capability with all 29 aircraft two years later. In addition to Boeing, Bell responded to the RFI with its AH-1Z Viper, and Airbus Helicopters with an updated Tiger. “The Apache Guardian is the most lethal, most survivable and lowest-risk option, meeting all of [the Department of] Defence's capability, through-life support, security and certification requirements,” Reynolds said. “By pursuing a proven and low-risk system offered by the Apache, [the Department of] Defence will avoid the ongoing cost and schedule risk typically associated with developmental platforms.” The Tiger was introduced to service in December 2004 but suffered poor availability rates and high ownership costs early in its career, before a remediation plan was implemented by the Department of Defence and industry around 2016. Reynolds said the issues with the Tiger fleet and other Australian military rotary-wing projects had informed the strategy to seek a proven and mature replacement. The decision to acquire the Apache was made under the Australian government's “Smart Buyer” policy, which allows for sole-source selection without a competition if there is a clear preference for a particular platform. A spokesman for Australia's Department of Defence said the government will now consider the acquisition of mission sensors and mission-relevant equipment, including the AN/APG-78 Longbow fire control radar, but no specific configuration or numbers of radars have been revealed. The spokesman said the department will continue to consider options to improve upon the Apache that maximize opportunities for the local defense industry, including warehousing services, training development, engineering services and maintenance, and repair and overhaul. “Additionally, early detailed transition planning will be conducted to ensure effective management of the skilled workforce, across [the Department of] Defence and industry, as [the Department of] Defence transitions the Tiger to the Apache,” the spokesman said. Boeing said the AH-64E provides Australia with a fully integrated, battle-proven capability and will continue to expand its industry capability and supply chain in Australia. “Apache is supported by an active production line and a U.S. Army modernization plan through to the late 2040s, thereby ensuring the platform remains the leading attack and reconnaissance capability through to 2050 and beyond,” a company spokesperson said.

  • Rheinmetall wins multimillion-euro order from Australia for strategic naval warfare systems

    August 29, 2023 | International, C4ISR, Security

    Rheinmetall wins multimillion-euro order from Australia for strategic naval warfare systems

    This important contract underscores once again the great trust the Common-wealth of Australia places in Rheinmetall and its products

All news