Military Embedded Systems

DARPA dives into developing high-bandwidth optical signaling technologies


November 15, 2018

Mariana Iriarte

Technology Editor

Military Embedded Systems

DARPA dives into developing high-bandwidth optical signaling technologies

ARLINGTON, Va. Officials at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are launching a new program called Photonics in the Package for Extreme Scalability (PIPES), which aims to enable future system scalability by developing high-bandwidth optical signaling technologies for digital microelectronics.

The program has been divided into three technical areas, which aims to develop and embed integrated optical transceiver capabilities into multi-chip modules (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 focusing 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.

“Today, microelectronic systems are severely constrained by the high cost of data movement, whether measured in terms of energy, footprint, or latency,” says 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.”

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


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