DARPA has launched a programme that aims to use the sensory capabilities of marine organisms to detect naval activity.

The Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) programme 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.

Evolution has given marine organisms a wide array of sensing abilities: tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical and optical. DARPA believes that these sensing capabilities, combined with the ubiquitous, adapting and self-replicating nature of living organisms, will offer advantages over using hardware alone.

“The US Navy’s current approach to detecting and monitoring underwater vehicles is hardware-centric and resource intensive,” said Lori Adornato, PALS programme manager.

“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 characterise the size and type of adversary vehicles.”

However, the PALS researchers will have to overcome several challenges. They will have to develop hardware, software and algorithms to translate organism behaviour into usable information and then send it back to end users.

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This information would be received by deployed hardware systems operating at a standoff distance of up to 500m, and the sensing systems must also discriminate between target vehicles and other sources of stimuli, such as debris and other marine organisms, to limit the number of false positives.

“Our ideal scenario for PALS is to leverage a wide range of native marine organisms, with no need to train, house, or modify them in any way, which would open up this type of sensing to many locations,” Adornato said.

DARPA is now seeking proposals from third party experts, and while it favours those that employ natural organisms, proposers are able to suggest modifications.

Dr Gordon Watson, a marine ecologist from the University of Portsmouth, said that the “electrical, acoustic, optical, magnetic and chemical methods could, theoretically, all be tested, but there would be significant hurdles to making them work for any human purpose, military or otherwise.”

But Watson, whose expertise lies in investigating the effects of humans on aquatic organisms through pollution and exploitation, also cautioned that while the research would help “push back the frontiers of our knowledge of marine sensing systems”, the programme would have to ensure that there was “minimal impact on the fragile coastal marine environment and the organisms themselves.”

DARPA anticipates the programme will last four years, requiring contributions in the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, machine learning, analytics, oceanography, mechanical and electrical engineering, and weak signals detection.