PALS Turns to Marine Organisms to Help Monitor Strategic Waters
Highly adapted sea life could help U.S. military detect adversary activity over large areas
PALS Turns to Marine Organisms to Help Monitor Strategic Waters
The world’s vast oceans and seas offer seemingly endless spaces in which adversaries of the United States can manouver undetected. The U.S. military deploys networks of manned and unmanned platforms and sensors to monitor adversary activity, but the scale of the task is daunting and hardware alone cannot meet every need in the dynamic marine environment. Sea life, however, offers a potential 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 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. PALS will investigate marine organisms’ responses to the presence of such vehicles, and characterise the resulting signals or behaviours 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 characterise the size and type of adversary vehicles.”
Beyond sheer ubiquity, 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 PALS researchers. Performer teams supporting DARPA will also have to develop hardware, software, and algorithms to translate organism behaviour 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.
Adornato is aiming to demonstrate the approach and its advantages in realistic environments to convey military utility.
“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 favours proposals that employ natural organisms, but proposers are able to 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. However, at no point in the PALS program will DARPA test modified organisms outside of contained, bio secure facilities.
DARPA anticipates 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.
A detailed broad Agency Announcement will be forthcoming and made available on http://www.fbo.gov.
DARPA, Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, 2/2/2018
The Military Wants Genetically-Modified Sea Creatures to Snitch on Enemy Ships
Critics of the militarisation of marine life say the problem with a new DARPA program is moral, not practical.
The US military wants to enlist fish and other sea life to help it track enemy submarines at sea. The Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors program could also modify existing species to make them better underwater spies, an effort that would face stiff opposition from environmental groups.
The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s blue-sky research and development wing, announced the PALS earlier this month. The program “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,” DARPA stated on its website.
The idea is that marine life—everything from bacteria to plankton and corals to fish and mammals—senses and in some way reacts to the presence of nearby ships. To DARPA, those reactions represent valuable data. “The program simply plans to observe the natural, unique behaviours of marine organisms in the presence of targets of interest, and to process those data to provide an alert,” Jared Adams, a DARPA spokesperson, told me via email.
If the military can develop a system for detecting ocean life’s reactions to passing vessels, it could in theory monitor all the world’s oceans for enemy activity—and do so more cheaply and effectively than with purely manmade sensors. “Beyond sheer ubiquity, sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over hardware alone,” DARPA stated.
For one, sea life “self-replicates and self-sustains”—that is, breeds—so the military wouldn’t have to maintain hardware that breaks down, rusts, and runs out of power. Moreover, sea life senses its environment in a number of different ways, potentially giving military analysts a more comprehensive view of the oceans.
“Evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains—tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical and optical,” DARPA explained. “Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark.”
We don’t know how exactly PALS would work in practice. Right now, DARPA considers the program to be a “fundamental research program,” Adams said. Military scientists would have to figure out how to record, on a massive scale and at great distances, animals’ reactions to nearby ships. They would need to write computer code to process raw data from two-thirds of Earth’s surface into useable intelligence.
And there’s another obstacle: the objections of people and organisations opposed to the militarisation of sea-dwelling creatures. “It is bad enough that the military regularly conducts exercises that impact large numbers of whales and dolphins, but now they want to actually involve marine mammals in their plans rather than just making them the victims,” John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaigner, told me via email.
Adams said that DARPA would not include endangered species and “intelligent mammals” in the PALS program, but it’s not clear how the agency defines “intelligent.” The US Navy already uses trained dolphins and sea lions to find underwater mines and other objects. Nor has DARPA explained how it proposes to separate data provided by, say, an endangered tuna species from similar input from tuna species that aren’t endangered.
Equally worrying, DARPA proposes to modify some species in order to optimise their senses for detecting manmade objects. The resulting breeds would essentially be genetically modified organisms and could disrupt or even collapse existing ecosystems.
Adams said DARPA would create and test modified species strictly in “contained, bio secure facilities.” But to actually deploy modified species, the military would have to release them into the wild, where they could drive out, out eat, or out breed unmodified species.
For Sea Shepherd, a Washington State-based ocean conservation group, the problem with PALS is moral rather than practical. Possible harm to marine life is “beside the point,” spokesperson Heather Stimmler told me via email. “We believe marine mammals should be left alone in the ocean where they belong to live their lives as nature intended, not ‘used’ by anyone for any reason.”
For now, DARPA is moving forward with its effort to enlist sea life. The agency has announced a meeting in Virginia on March 2 for interested researchers.
Motherboard, Feb 22 2018, 3:30pm