A program in the U.S. Department of Defense is looking to recruit fish in its efforts to surveil the world’s underwater terrain and enhance its ability to detect enemy ships.
By harnessing marine organisms’ ability to sense even the most minute disturbances in their environments, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) — the U.S. Department of Defense’s experimental research arm — says it could be able to preemptively discover even the smallest autonomous vehicles.
Among the potential enlistees of the program called The Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS), are goliath grouper, black sea bass, snapping shrimp, and other even smaller organisms like bioluminescent plankton and other microorganisms.
‘Tapping into the exquisite sensing capabilities of marine organisms could yield a discreet, persistent, and highly scalable solution to maintaining awareness in the challenging underwater environment,’ said program manager Lori Adornato in a statement.
As envisioned by DARPA, the living breathing surveillance network would function by using an array of underwater sensors to closely observe fish and other organisms.
While hardware like microphones, sonar, and video reads the sea creatures’ cues, software would interpret the stimulus and then determine whether or not those responses were the result of ships or other disturbances of interest.
As reported by the Independent, those cues could range from large ‘booms’ let out by the 800 lbs goliath grouper when they’re approached by divers or loud ‘sizzling’ sounds let off by snapping shrimp that travel long distances and can be used as a sit-in for radar.
In theory, the plan sounds relatively simple — observe sea creatures and relay their actions to a human operator — but in practice the initiative has at least a couple of major hurdles.
For one, being able to discern noise from signal, in other words, determining whether or not a creatures actions are in direct response to an underwater vehicle as opposed to a blue whale, would be difficult.
In a report from the Independent, one oceanographer says the feat would require a sophisticated knowledge of sea life.
‘You have to have some understanding of animal behavior, and that’s always a huge wild card,’ Kim Martini, a physical oceanographer based in Seattle, told the outlet.
To gather those signals in the first place, the Department of Defense would also need equipment that’s up to the task and according to DARPA that Conventional equipment is prone to being obscured by the wear and tear of the ocean.
If done right, however, Adornato says that the method would represent a new way of carrying out underwater reconnaissance.
‘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…’
So far five companies have received $45 million to help bring the PALS program to fruition using their own unique methods.