I'm considering upgrading the FPGAs on a product of mine from small Spartan3A-200s to low-to-mid-scale Spartan6s. The Spartan6s are actually cheaper, and I've just about outgrown the 200. It looks like it'd be a mistake to design in another Spartan3A at this point.

My (oilfield related) product is shipped potentially anywhere. So, I really don't want to make a major mistake like putting controlled technology in my next design.

These FPGAs are based on technology that was absolutely state of the art just a couple years ago. I recall certain processors once being export-restricted, so I am concerned that the Spartan6s might somehow be restricted.

I've been searching for info on what FPGAs or components in general are covered by export restrictions like ITAR, without turning up anything definitive. It -looks- like it only applies to space-rated chips. (It's always mentioned in that context).

How am I supposed to tell what's okay to export?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Nothing to do with electronic design. Question should be closed. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 8:21
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ @Dean - welcome to the dark side [tm]. That's EXACTLY what ITAR means and your comment is sadly both apposite and correct and wrong. Various items in the US are classified as munitions. This includes eg SOME components that MAY PERHAPS be able to be included in a weapons system, strong encryption systems (such as PGP), and various other wholly inobvious and apparently innocuous. You can probably end up using up all 3 of your strikes exporting a toilet seat with hinges and lid if they happen to be ITAR classified. \$\endgroup\$
    – Russell McMahon
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 9:55
  • 12
    \$\begingroup\$ How is this not electronic design? I can see the logic in seeing it that way BUT this specifically assists people to design things one way and not another*, influences components choices, saves people from having their design worked trashed through ignorance (or keeps them out of jail) et al. * Should I uses and FPGA? Is there a gate limit where this becomes important? are alternatives worse or better, should ...? \$\endgroup\$
    – Russell McMahon
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 10:22
  • 10
    \$\begingroup\$ Leon - choice of components is absolutely to do with design, and non-technical criteria like this, avalability, suppier's attitude etc. can be at least as important as technical ones. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 11:03
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Kortuk: I expected any degree of fuzziness to come with a IANAL disclaimer (I was hoping for a "don't worry, that's not even in the ballpark" answer) I also thought it would be a useful reminder to other designers that may not have thought of export compliance. \$\endgroup\$
    – darron
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 15:30

3 Answers 3


"What is ITAR" enquiring minds have asked - see end.

I've never dealt directly with ITAR issues but have read much in two different communities where a number of members have had ITAR experience (Rocketry & Electronics focuses) .

I'd suggest that asking an exporter about specific parts or families of parts would be wise. Some exporters (such as Digikey) ask quite searching ITAR type questions about every export order and others (such as Mouser) do it on a case by case basis as required.

ITAR links below BUT I understand that it is a potential minefield (no pun intended) and having an expert aka a seasoned exporter of the goods of interest tell you what applies in the real world "may help".

You can choose to do it "the hard way" - ITAR regulations here

Or this useful 225 page annotated ITAR version

ITAR stands for "International Traffic in Arms Regulations"

As well as items which are "obviously" munitions, various items in the US are classified as munitions. This includes eg SOME components that MAY PERHAPS be able to be included in a weapons system, strong encryption systems (such as PGP), and various other wholly inobvious and apparently innocuous. You can probably end up using up all 3 of your strikes exporting a toilet seat with hinges and lid if they happen to be ITAR classified.

If you build a good enough guidance system (will it allow an other wise inept pipe rocket to accurately travel from G_z_ to J__us__e_ ?), extremely good shielding system (can it help find Red Octobers),overload protection system (EMP killer), suitably precise measuring system (insert black technology task here) , advanced low loss extra high speed bearing system (such as MAY be useful in a 100,000 RPM gas diffusion centrifuge) then it MAY be ITAR classified.
And, so may any component used therein if it seems a good idea to somebody somewhere. So much so that I am told by people who really should know (one builds small satellites in England, the others build rockets in the US) that eg European satellite makers make every possible effort that no US sourced components of any sort are used in their [products.

Many hours of interesting reading available via the links above.
The annotated version helps heaps.
Early on it notes:

  • The commercial export of conventional arms is governed principally by the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), which authorizes the President to control the export of arms, ammunition, implements of war and related technical data. The President has delegated that authority to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary has promulgated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), under which a license or other approval is required for exports of defense articles, related technical data and defense services. Pursuant to the AECA and the ITAR it is unlawful for persons (including U.S. companies and governmental entities) to export or temporarily import any defense articles or related technical data or to furnish any defense services without first obtaining the required license or other approval from the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, unless an exemption to the ITAR applies.

Examples - Many surprising items have turned up in ITAR lists.

One perhaps less surprising is:

  • Radiation-hardened microelectronic circuits that meet or exceed all five of the following characteristics:
    • (1) A total dose of 5 ×105 Rads (Si);
    • (2) A dose rate upset threshold of 5 × 108 Rads (Si)/sec;
    • (3) A neutron dose of 1 × 1014 n/cm2 (1 MeV equivalent);
    • (4) A single event upset rate of 1 × 10-10 errors/bit-day or less, for the CREME96 geosynchronous orbit, Solar Minimum Environment;
    • (5) Single event latch-up free and having a dose rate latch-up threshold of 5 × 108 Rads (Si)

Much of the content seems to depend on meeting the conditions "designed for" or "intended for" military ise.
You MAY find that "suitable for" and "designed for" are deemed to be equivalent.
If so, you REALLY want to find out VERY early on. Lest the black helicopter you hear turns out to be your own.

125 °C?

  • (d) Electronic assemblies and components specifically designed for military use and operation at temperatures in excess of 125 degrees C, (see § 121.1, Category XI(a)(7)).

EMP protection

  • (e) Design technology for protection of avionics and electrical subsystems against electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and electromagnetic interference (EMI) hazards from external sources, as follows, (see § 121.1, Category XI (b)). (1) Design technology for shielding systems; (2) Design technology for the configuration of hardened electrical circuits and subsystems;
    (3) Determination of hardening criteria for the above
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I'd read that European satellite manufacturers avoid US components for this reason. However, I'm not hearing that anyone making non-defense terrestial products is. Still, I'm not seeing any "don't worry be happy" answer so I'll ask a Xilinx rep and take a look at the annotated ITAR doc. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – darron
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 15:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've been directed to look up the product ECCNs, which I vaguely knew about at one time but have since forgotten. It appears my concerns were valid... some Spartan6s are classified 3A001.A.7.A, due to having a high IO pin count. All seem to be at least 3A991, which means no to Sudan, possibly Iran and Cuba. 3A991 is perfectly fine for me, 3A001 is possibly problematic. Further, even the 3A001.A.7.A parts appear in my circumstances to quality for exceptions, although I'd have to be very careful there. Thanks! For anyone else, CHECK YOURSELF AND GET HELP (as I will) don't trust me. \$\endgroup\$
    – darron
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 16:49

I am not a lawyer...but...I did once work on a project where explaining how my part of the project worked to a particular (non-US-citizen) coworker would, so I was told, be a violation of ITAR...figure out how well that project was likely to go. It was very difficult to get a straight answer about what the regulation actually does and does not prohibit, even from the people in our multinational corporation who were supposed to be the experts in this area.

You will want to check this out for yourself rather than just believe some guy on the internet, but my understanding is that just because a certain part (say a Spartan-6 FPGA) is considered export-controlled technology and just because you use that part in your design, does not necessarily mean that your product is now subject to export control. If your product does not itself fall into one of the export-controlled categories, you may be able to export it with no license requirements...but again, consult someone who owes you good advice (and has the expertise), don't just trust me. But also, don't assume that you can't use a part just because it falls under ITAR, either.


The people that will have the most definitive answer to this will surely be the manufacturer - they should be able to tell you exactly what restrictions apply to each of their products.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ It's actually the government's Department of Trade, or whatever it's called in the country from which the item is to be exported, or the country in which it is manufactured. It's nothing to do with the manufacturer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 14:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ While I agree it's not "the most definitive" answer, a US component manufacturer should know if their product is ITAR classified. \$\endgroup\$
    – darron
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 15:25
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ They should know, but on the other hand, they're not the ones in trouble with the government if they're wrong. If their answer isn't deeply satisfying to you ("yes, we export them directly ourselves all the time, and every employee carries one through airport security as a good luck charm"), you might want to double check with lawyers who know something about the matter. It's all personal liability awfulness with ITAR, as I understand it from my training courses. :( \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 15:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.