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IIT-Madras and DRDO Partner to Advance Underwater Sensor Technology

Image credit: Indian Institute of Technology Madras

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-Madras) have partnered with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to create cutting-edge sensor technology for underwater communications. This breakthrough innovation will benefit defence applications, particularly in the Navy, a statement by IIT-Madras noted.

Known as piezoelectric microelectromechanical system (MEMS) technology, it is crucial in the development of high-performance thin films. It converts piezo-thin film into state-of-the-art futuristic naval sensors and devices for underwater applications. These piezo thin films play a critical role in acoustics and vibration-sensing applications, making them essential for the functionality of piezo MEMS devices.

The piezo MEMS process recipe has been successfully developed jointly with the DRDO team for the complete fabrication of an acoustic sensor, without degrading the functionality of the piezo thin film. The fabricated PZT thin film-based acoustic sensor exhibits higher performance than the conventional PVDF-based acoustic sensor. The enhanced capabilities of these devices can contribute to improved sensing and communication capabilities in various defense-related underwater scenarios.

The development of this technology has reached an advanced stage in terms of its Technology Readiness Level (TRL). TRL is a metric used to evaluate the maturity and readiness of a specific technology. In this case, the technology has achieved a high TRL, indicating that it has undergone significant testing and validation.

Indigenously developing this technology enables the country to manufacture the devices at a lower cost compared to internationally available foundries, where the cost of fabrication is high and the number of foundries is limited.

The research initiative was spearheaded by the DRDO Industry Academia – Ramanujan Centre of Excellence (DIA-RCoE) at IIT-Madras. The project involved collaboration with two DRDO laboratories, namely the Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory (NPOL) in Kochi and the Naval Science and Technological Laboratory (NSTL) in Visakhapatnam. These DRDO laboratories played a crucial role in contributing their expertise and resources to the project.

An official said that the current state of this technology is advanced enough to be transformed into a system with the support of the Indian industry. Its potential as a disruptive technology in the underwater communication domain is significant. This achievement marks a major milestone for ‘Aatma Nirbhar Bharat’ (Self-Reliant India) in terms of underwater materials and micro device processing technology.

The establishment of fabrication facilities at both IIT-Madras and DRDO Industry Academia – Ramanujan Centre of Excellence is a significant achievement, the statement said. The indigenous development of Piezo MEMS technology connects the technology gaps leading to the development of piezo MEMS acoustic devices for underwater applications. Large dimension (100 mm dia) Piezoelectric thin films were fabricated using both RF sputtering and Sol-Gel techniques, ensuring good uniformity and superior piezoelectric properties.

According to a scientist from DRDO, a crucial challenge in the Piezo MEMS process technology is ensuring high reliability and durability in harsh, high-pressure underwater environments and the corrosive nature of seawater.

Across the globe, numerous research groups and defense laboratories in countries such as the U.S., Europe, Korea, Japan, and China are actively engaged in the development of piezo MEMS technologies. Internationally, several piezo MEMS foundries are manufacturing a wide range of piezo MEMS devices for both defence and civilian applications. The current market for piezo thin film-based piezoelectric devices is valued at approximately US$ 5 billion, and it is projected to experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12% over the next 3 to 4 years.

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