Lurking amid thriving sea and plant life in the world’s vast oceans, adversaries of the United States hide and can maneuver undetected. To meet this challenge, the U.S. military deploys networks of manned and unmanned platforms and sensors to monitor adversary activity, but the scale of the task is formidable and hardware alone cannot meet every need in the vibrant marine environment, DARPA said in a release.
But sea life, offers an interesting new advantage. Marine organisms are highly attuned to their surroundings — their survival depends on it — and a new program out of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office aims to leverage 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, according to DARPA. PALS will research marine organisms’ responses to the presence of UUVs, and characterize their resulting 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 evolves according to its environment; it self-replicates and self-sustains. Through evolution marine organisms have 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 predators in the dark.
Evaluating the sensing capabilities of sea life is only one of the challenges for researchers. Performer teams supporting DARPA 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 must collect signals of interest from relevant species, process and distill them, and then relay them to remote end users. The complete 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, DARPA says.
Adornato aims to demonstrate the approach and its advantages in realistic environments to prove military utility.
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, which would open up this type of sensing to many locations, Adornato said.
DARPA prefers proposals that employ natural organisms, but proposers can suggest modifications. To the extent researchers do propose solutions that would tune organisms’ reporting mechanisms, the proposers will be responsible for developing appropriate environmental safeguards to support future deployment. At no point in the PALS program will DARPA test modified organisms outside of contained, biosecure facilities.
DARPA expects that PALS will be 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.
DARPA will hold a Proposers Day on March 2, 2018, in Arlington, Virginia, to provide more information about PALS and to answer questions from potential proposers. For additional details visit: https://go.usa.gov/xnAZG.
Registration is available at: http://events.sa-meetings.com/PALSProposersDay.
A detailed Broad Agency Announcement will be forthcoming and made available on www.fbo.gov/.