The UK military and intelligence services are paying the inventor of the world smallest computer to develop an “ultra miniature” spy camera.
Details about the device – including its size and how it operates – are top secret, but it is likely to be so tiny as to be barely visible to the naked eye.
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The camera is being developed by Professor David Blaauw and his team at the University of Michigan, who are credited with inventing the world’s smallest computer. Their Michigan Micro Mote – M3 – computer fits easily on the rim of a coin and is no more than 0.3mm on each side. An earlier version was just 1mm by 1mm by 1mm.
The university boasts its latest version, unveiled in 2018, is “dwarfed by a grain of rice”. Prof Blaauw, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, has used his “low power” system to even fit tracking devices to butterflies.
He has developed an expertise in building powerful but tiny microchips that use very low levels of energy. The microchips have hundreds of uses, from medical implants to soil monitoring, but it is their potential deployment in monitoring devices that has attracted the attention of Britain’s military and security services.
James Bond’s Q – the fictional character who invents the spy’s array of bewildering gadgets – would be proud.
Funding details, uncovered by The Telegraph, show almost £1.5 million of military and intelligence services money from the UK has been paid out to Prof Blaauw for the development of the miniature camera
The project is being funded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), the Ministry of Defence’s world famous scientific research unit based at Porton Down in Wiltshire, and by the little known Government Communications Planning Directorate (GCPD). The GCPD is the procurement arm of MI5, the domestic intelligence agency, and MI6, its foreign intelligence counterpart.
GCPD’s existence is well known in the spying world but remains largely in the shadows and most people, including many in the Government, are unaware of its important role in keeping the UK safe.
Prof Blaauw, speaking from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the US, told The Telegraph he was unable to discuss the military and intelligence projects he was working on for the British Government. “I can’t really talk about this project,” he said.
But the project gets a brief mention on his very lengthy academic CV, posted online. The document discloses that the “Government Communications Planning Directorate (GCPD)/Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)” have provided funding for the development of an “Ultra-Miniature Imager Technical Demonstrator”.
The Telegraph understands this is essentially a camera used in surveillance, but would be so small as to be virtually undetectable. The total funding for the project is $1,715,524 – or a little more than £1.2 million.
The funding for the project began in July 2019 and ran for three years until April this year. It is unclear if the project has been completed.
Although prof Blaauw could not talk about the specific work, he told The Telegraph: “Our general systems are in the area of a few millimetres in size. The very smallest we have are even smaller than that – about a quarter of a millimetre.
“They are very small but have very limited capabilities. They can sense temperature and pressure. They are so small they make a grain of rice look like a giant balloon.”
Prof Blaauw said he began work on micro computers a little over 20 years ago, and produced the first “small, low power systems” in 2011. One of his most recent projects is to fit sensors to Monarch butterflies to “track them as they migrate from the northern US to Mexico each year”.
Although competitors at IBM and elsewhere have attempted to rival his miniature computers, Prof Blaauw said: “In terms of complete systems of this size, nobody has come close to us.”
The fact that the UK agencies have approached Prof Blaauw and his team demonstrates the understanding in Whitehall for British intelligence and military to be able to outsmart hostile states, among them Russia and China, which have near limitless resources – certainly in terms of manpower – to throw at its spying capabilities. The UK recognises the need to develop and deploy groundbreaking technology to keep ahead of rivals.
This content was originally published here.