DARPA nails cash to project 'FENCE' — a smart camera that only sends pics when pixels change

Research agency also open-sources FETT hardware bug bounty platform and tools


The USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced it will fund development of a new type of “event-based” camera that only transmits information about pixels that have changed.

The Agency last week announced last week that Raytheon, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman will develop the new snapper under the Fast Event-based Neuromorphic Camera and Electronics (FENCE) program.

The research and development agency solicited proposals for the project in October 2020, when it sought help to build a camera that can sense motion and determine its importance, with low latency and consuming minimal energy.

The technology was originally conceived for tactical applications like robotics or autonomous vehicles in rural areas where network access is not guaranteed. Or theaters of war where scenes are highly dynamic and data-heavy.

These neuromorphic cameras have silicon circuits that mimic brain function, operating with sparse output in addition to the low latency and high energy efficiency. Dr Whitney Mason, the program manager leading the FENCE program, issued a canned statement, explaining:

Event-based cameras operate under these same principles when dealing with sparse scenes, but currently lack advanced ‘intelligence’ to perform more difficult perception and control tasks.

The improvement is attributable to the neuromorphic camera’s asynchronous operation and the transmission of data only on pixels that have changed — detected by the thermal detector in the IR camera known as the focal plane array (FPA) and machine learning algorithms.

By selecting and transmitting only the images that change, neuromorphic cameras produce less than one per cent as much data in sparse scenes relative to traditional FPAs, as demonstrated in the following video:

Youtube Video

DARPA said Raytheon, BAE Systems, and Northrop Grumman will work to develop the low-latency asynchronous read-out integrated circuit (ROIC) and a ROIC-integrated processing layer that identifies relevant change signals. The ROIC and processing layer combination facilitates a sensor to operate at less than 1.5 Watts.

DARPA’s been busy lately, as last week it also announced it will be open-sourcing its Finding Exploits to Thwart Tampering (FETT) bug bounty-hunting evaluation platform and tools.

For FETT, DARPA’s first ever bug bounty program, the organization provided hundreds of researchers and engineers access to a virtual platform to search for vulnerabilities and security flaws — known as the System Security Integration Through Hardware and firmware (SSITH) program. The open-sourcing includes the back-end management of emulated systems, user-facing front-end components and the evaluation tools used for testing processor power, performance, area, security, and security properties.

The organization announced that it is also open-sourcing the baseline RISC-V processor designs used by the SSITH program and the tools for instantiating and interacting with the baseline processors on FPGA development boards and Amazon AWS F1 cloud. The open-sourcing excludes the program’s secure architectures.

DARPA said the available processor designs “provide a jumping-off point for developers that are exploring novel hardware protections and are interested in a means of evaluating them in a virtual environment”.

The FETT platform, tools, demonstrators, and supporting assets are available on GitHub. ®


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