ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- The Army's initial concept of exploring DNA as a tagging and tracking method has led to the discovery of an optical scanning technology that can identify counterfeit electronic components before they are integrated into Army materiel.

Researchers from the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command said the technology provides the capability to identify and track materiel in the absence of external tags or barcodes.

This timely discovery will help address a significant challenge within the Army and DoD: the presence of counterfeit electronic components in military equipment.

A 2011-2012 investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee found overwhelming evidence that international counterfeiters are taking old, sub-standard electronic components and altering them to appear as new, brand-name parts that are then integrated into DoD munitions, aircrafts, sensors, and other electronic devices.

SASC chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, said the "flood of counterfeit parts, overwhelmingly from China, threatens national security, the safety of our troops, and American jobs."

Although the SASC uncovered the sources of many of these counterfeit parts, an ongoing challenge is to consistently and reliably identify these forgeries and prevent their integration into DoD and Army materiel.

The SASC released a report in May 2012 emphasizing this challenge by documenting "failures by defense contractors and DoD to report counterfeit parts and gaps in DoD's knowledge of the scope and impact of such parts on defense systems."

This investigation led to an amendment, signed by President Obama, to stop the integration of counterfeit electronic parts into DoD systems and to address weaknesses in the supply chain.

An Army Research Laboratory-Army Research Office Small Business Innovation Research topic has led to a novel technology that will help address many of the challenges noted in the SASC report.

The SBIR topic, conceived by scientists from ARL-ARO and the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in 2007, called for a study of the properties of DNA to determine if this information-rich natural polymer could be used in a new barcoding system that would provide enhanced security relative to conventional tracking methods.

A California-based company, ChromoLogic, LLC, was contracted to explore this SBIR topic.

ChromoLogic developed a tag with a biomimetic barcode that can be aligned in the proper order and decoded by an optical reader, akin to how the sequence of a DNA molecule can be read.

This biomimetic tag and reader system has robust information-storage capabilities that are unambiguous and readily authenticated, with no reagent or material exchange between the tag and reader.

This technology will provide a capability that complements ongoing research led by the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center, which focuses on embedding DNA in printed barcodes, which can be transferred to a reference test ticket to verify authentic military materiel.

Interestingly, as is often true for high-risk, high-payoff research, this project led to an unexpected discovery that may have an even greater impact than was initially conceived.

The research team, led by principal investigator Dr. Naresh Menon and project manager Leonard Nelson, discovered that the optical scanning technology developed to decode the biomimetic tag is capable of mapping the intrinsic surface of electronic components, providing a type of fingerprint to distinguish authentic or counterfeit circuits.

Nelson stated that when "illegitimate electronic components' surfaces are altered, the counterfeiters do it in a way that is very difficult for human observers to detect…believe it or not, the fake ones look better than the real ones."

Given that counterfeit electronic components are forged chiefly by altering their surface layers, this discovery provides a powerful method for screening integrated circuits based on their intrinsic surface patterns, which can be scanned in as little as one second.

ChromoLogic has developed this surface-scanning technology into the DTEK system, which provides quantitative optical inspection of integrated circuits.

Dr. Stephanie McElhinny, ARL-ARO program manager for the ChromoLogic project, noted that the development and use of this optical scanner for detecting surface fingerprints "is an incredible example that illustrates how research discoveries can guide a project to an outcome that would never have been predicted…and serves as a strong argument for the continued support of high-risk research to enable new Army capabilities."

The DTEK system recently began evaluation through multiple electronics manufacturers, and the technology has already been adopted by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Boeing.

McElhinny and ARO Military Deputy Lt. Col. Timothy Warner attended a site demonstration of the DTEK system at Boeing's Huntington Beach location in 2012.

The ARL-ARO representatives were shown the quality assurance process at Boeing and the role that the DTEK system will play in authenticating circuits for use in DoD contracts.

According to Warner, the importance of this technology is evident "when one considers the implications of an illegitimate circuit making its way into Army materiel--it could cause a 10-fold reduction in service life, or worse--it could cause the failure of an aircraft or targeting system while in operation, putting lives at risk."

The DTEK system, used as part of a comprehensive counterfeit-mitigation process, may reduce the influx of forgeries into Army materiel and improve the reliability of mission-essential equipment used by the Soldier.

The DTEK optical scanning technology is also capable of identifying and tracking materiel in the absence of external tags or barcodes.

The research team is working with Picatinny Arsenal and the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center to develop a hand-held scanner that can be used for covert tracking and management of high-value Army commodities.