Designing Physical Layer Security for Military PCBs in Altium Designer

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: March 19, 2021

PCBs for military systems are high performing beasts that must meet stringent design and performance standards. Military systems that store and process sensitive data require extra layers of security that goes beyond locking them in a secure enclosure. You’ll need to design your Printed Circuit Boards to be extremely resistant to EMI, route data so that it cannot be tapped passively, and include blacked-out chips to prevent attackers from accessing sensitive data. These measures for ensuring physical layer security for military Circuit Boards can be implemented when you use Altium Designer, the only fully integrated PCB design platform on the market.


A unified PCB design package with the best tools for designing military electronics systems.

Whether it’s a PCB for a computer peripheral, single board computer, or embedded system for data processing, military PCBs in mission critical systems must implement physical layer security measures. The right design software will help you design your military PCB to industrial standards and implement physical layer security protocols that are designed to prevent and detect circuit tampering.

Only Altium Designer integrates all of your design features on top of a single rules-driven design engine, giving you the adaptability you need to design any embedded system. You’ll have the power to design your board with the electrical performance required for mission critical applications, include components that help guarantee physical layer security, and tamper-proof communications capabilities. The integrated design, component management, and production planning environment in Altium Designer offers the tools required to implement physical layer security for military PCBs.

Physical Layer Security at the Board Level

Military systems that receive, process, and communicate data will do so using high-end commercially available components, and attackers can attempt circuit tampering directly at the component and trace level. There are a number of measures you can take that ensure these elements cannot be probed. Designing your Circuit Boards with these physical layer security measures is rather simple when you use the right design software.

Sometimes, the best solutions are the least elegant. Vias are critical physical access points, and opting for the use of blind and buried vias will prevent vias with non-conductive fill decrease the number of locations that are vulnerable to physical probing. Using a thick solder mask to conceal and protect critical traces also prevents circuit tampering. Regarding components themselves, they should be blacked out so that attackers cannot directly identify manufacturers or model numbers. A component can also be encased in a non-conductive epoxy to physically prevent attackers from probing pins and capturing data.

Design Software for Board-level Security

Implementing physical layer security for military PCBs at the trace level might go so far as routing buried circuits in a multilayer board. Embedding as many components, traces, and vias as possible will limit opportunities for circuit tampering. Tamper detection is another measure that should be taken when possible. This involves designing packaging that will trip a fuse or switch if the enclosure is ever opened or damaged, cutting power to the board and even alerting a base station.

All of these measures require carefully selecting your components so that you can ensure security and routing traces so that attackers are physically unable to access any elements that carry sensitive data. With the right design software, you can design any physical layer security measure into your board.

Screenshot of Via Properties window in Altium Designer

Buried via design in Altium Designer

Securing Wireless Capabilities on the Physical Layer

Another critical aspect of physical layer security surrounds communications capabilities. Military systems with wireless capabilities should have enhanced shielding effectiveness against electromagnetic interference. This shielding should exceed radio frequency/electromagnetic interference standards on mission critical boards to prevent self-jamming. Communication between military systems often uses a custom wireless protocol in order to prevent unauthorized access and decoding of wireless data.

EMI Shielding Effectiveness and Security

Wireless data security must be implemented at the software/firmware level and at the component level. Preventing electromagnetic interference requires a number of smart design choices for any circuit board, but especially in boards with wireless capabilities. Just like the case of securing components, the brute force solution of using shielding cans can provide robust electromagnetic interference suppression in your PCB. Working with design software that integrates an extensive component library, mechanical tools, and electrical tools allows you to implement all of these measures in a single program.

Screenshot of the Ground Plane Properties dialog in Altium Designer

Designing a ground plane in a multilayer board provides robust EMI shielding

Design and Simulation in a Single Environment

With trace routing, via design, component selection, and packaging design being so important for physical layer security, you need design software that places all these tools into a single program. When these design tools integrate directly into your simulation features, you’ll have the power to design for physical security and electromagnetic interference immunity in a single program. Only Altium Designer places all these tools into a single environment.

Altium Designer: Unifying Your Design and Simulation Tools

The design and simulation features in Altium Designer are built on top of a rules-driven design engine, ensuring your tools communicate in the same data format and within the same program. Other programs separate design, simulation, production planning, and management features into different programs. No other design platform offers the same depth and breadth of functionality as Altium Designer.

Although attacks on consumer, industrial, and even military software systems seem to turn into major news stories on a weekly basis, rest assured that attackers are also interested in compromising physical devices. Working with the right PCB design package with an integrated feature set gives you the tools to implement physical layer security for military PCBs and help prevent tampering.

Altium wants you to be successful and will be there with resources when you need them. You’ll have access to design tutorials from industry experts, the AltiumLive forum, webinars and podcasts, and an extensive knowledge base. While other PCB design software companies leave you to work alone, Altium provides the knowledge and resources you need to reach success.

The rules-driven design engine in Altium Designer unifies your design features under one roof and is the new industry standard in PCB design. If you want to work with the best software on the market, then make the switch to Altium Designer.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, and the American Physical Society, and he currently serves on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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