The Chinese Navy has recently seized a U.S. Navy underwater drone in international waters near the Philippine Islands, violating international law and threatening illegal access to the United States military's technology in that device.

It seems to me that the U.S. 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 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 who I met at a homecoming breakfast in Tucson, Arizona, 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.

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).

Hydronalix autonomousmobilebuoy (cr) Figure 1: The Autonomous Mobile Buoy

Hydronalix Emilyremotecontrollertransmitter (cr) Figure 2: Emily’s remote control transmitter

The company's 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 defence in these types of devices.

A second line of defence 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 five seconds via a laser triggering a photo diode, which switches on the self-destruct circuit.

Other methods that have been researched include a U.S. 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.

This article first appeared on EDN.