Asymmetric Dialogue

Sea life helps detect enemy submarines and UUVs

Summary Marine scientists at Raytheon BBN Technologies Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., are investigating new ways of using sea life to detect and track potentially hostile manned submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) over vast areas of the world's oceans.
Marine scientists at Raytheon BBN Technologies Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., are investigating new ways of using sea life to detect and track potentially hostile manned submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) over vast areas of the world's oceans.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., announced a potential $6.4 million contract to Raytheon BBN last week for the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors Bio-Acoustic Sonar System (PALS) program.

PALS seeks to capitalize on living things in the ocean to augment existing hardware-based maritime sonar to tap into the innate abilities of marine organisms to sense and respond to disturbances caused by submarines and UUVs. The DARPA PALS contract to Raytheon BBN is for $3.3 million, and has options to increase that to $6.4 million.
DARPA and BBN researchers will work together to apply those abilities to detect, characterize, and report on manned or unmanned underwater vehicles ranging from small autonomous vessels to large nuclear submarines.
Because marine organisms are ubiquitous, self-replicating, and largely self-sustaining, sensing systems that use marine organisms as their foundation would be discreet, cost-effective, and provide persistent undersea surveillance with a minimal logistical footprint, DARPA officials explain.
DARPA and BBN are trying to develop a two-stage system that first can sense and detect the presence of an underwater vehicle and respond with an output signal or other observable behavior; and second to develop a detector to observe, record, and interpret the organisms’ responses, and report analyzed results.
The complete PALS system also will seek to discriminate between target vehicles and other sources of stimuli, such as debris and other marine organisms, to limit false alarms.
The world’s vast oceans and seas offer seemingly endless spaces where U.S. adversaries can maneuver undetected, DARPA officials say. The U.S. military deploys networks of manned and unmanned sensors to monitor adversary activity, but the scale of the task is daunting and hardware alone cannot meet every need.
Sea life, however, offers a potential new advantage, DARPA officials say. Marine organisms are attuned to their surroundings, and may be able to help monitor strategic waters such as straits and littoral regions for enemy submarines and UUVs.
DARPA and BBN scientists will study natural and modified organisms to determine which ones best could support sensors able to detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles. The idea is to capture and interpret the responses of these marine organisms with networked hardware.
“The U.S. Navy’s current approach to detecting and monitoring underwater vehicles is hardware-centric and resource-intensive," says Lori Adornato, the DARPA PALS program manager. "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.
“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,” Adornato says.
Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, DARPA officials explain, prompted by evolution to sense tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical, and optical stimuli. Raytheon BBN researchers will develop hardware, software, and algorithms to translate organism behavior into actionable information and then communicate it to military authorities.