Marine Organisms Could Help Monitor Military Activity
Highly adapted sea life could help U.S. military detect adversary activity over large areas, says the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The world’s oceans offer endless opportunities for military forces to maneuver undetected, and in response, the U.S. military deploys networks of manned and unmanned platforms and sensors to monitor adversary activity. However, hardware alone cannot meet every need, so DARPA is researching how marine organisms, highly attuned to their surroundings, could be used to help. A new program out of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office aims to tap into their natural sensing capabilities to detect and signal when activities of interest occur in strategic waters such as straits and littoral regions.
The Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program, led by program manager Lori Adornato, will study natural and modified organisms to determine which ones could best support sensor systems that detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles. It will investigate marine organisms’ responses to the presence of such vehicles, and characterize the resulting signals or behaviors so they can be captured, interpreted, and relayed by a network of hardware devices.
“The U.S. Navy’s current approach to detecting and monitoring underwater vehicles is hardware-centric and resource intensive. As a result, the capability is mostly used at the tactical level to protect high-value assets like aircraft carriers, and less so at the broader strategic level,” Adornato said. “If we can tap into the innate sensing capabilities of living organisms that are ubiquitous in the oceans, we can extend our ability to track adversary activity and do so discreetly, on a persistent basis, and with enough precision to characterize the size and type of adversary vehicles.”
Sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over hardware alone. Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains. Evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains: tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark.
However, evaluating the sensing capabilities of sea life is only one of the challenges for the researchers. Supporting teams will also have to develop hardware, software and algorithms to translate organism behavior into actionable information and then communicate it to end users. Deployed hardware systems operating at a standoff distance of up to 500 meters would collect signals of interest from relevant species, process and then relay them to remote end users. The systems would need to discriminate between target vehicles and other sources of stimuli, such as debris and other marine organisms, to limit the number of false positives.
Adornato says the ideal scenario is to leverage a wide range of native marine organisms, with no need to train, house or modify them in any way.
The project will start with a four-year, fundamental research program requiring contributions in the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, machine learning, analytics, oceanography, mechanical and electrical engineering and weak signals detection.