Long before Jason Mamoa reinvented Aquaman as a gruff, tatted up badass, many of us can remember a day when he was the lamest member of the Justice League. The blonde haired pretty boy was capable of communicating with fish – often calling upon their help to foil water based crime or to defend his Kingdom of Atlantis. Talking to fish, we all chuckled, what a worthless super power.

But that’s not how DARPA sees it.

While Aquaman may call on a pod of whales to help keep a boat from sinking, DARPA, or the U.S. Government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, hopes to take a far broader approach: they want to use aquatic wildlife to help them identify and track enemy movements deep within the ocean using a program calls PALS: the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program.

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,” PALS Project Manager Lori Adornato said in a DARPA press release.

“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.”

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The PALS program aims to incorporate a wide variety of undersea life to aid a series of submersed and floating sensor nodes designed specifically to have a minimal effect on the ocean’s ecosystem, while offering the Department of Defense the ability to locate encroaching Naval assets. With China rapidly developing a form of “silent drive” propulsion systems for their submarines, and Russia fielding massive nuclear weapons in the form of submersible drones, tapping into the innate sensing capabilities of the ocean’s wildlife, unusual as it may seem, may be the most practical means by which to counter these growing threats.

DARPA hopes to establish a system that can track the activity of a variety of Marine animals, including the sounds they produce and their traffic patterns. By studying the behavior of the animals and establishing an understanding of how they respond to different stimuli, an algorithm could be developed that identifies sudden shifts in animal behavior that may indicate the presence of an enemy submarine or vessel.

This would mean that DARPA wouldn’t have to resort to modifying any animals, or even training them: an effort that has historically proven expensive, arduous, and faces a number of issues like animals cruelty concerns and the fiscal loss represented by animals aging out of use or dying. The PALS plan, on the other hand, would track natural wildlife behaviors, rather than attempting to develop new ones.

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.

She went on to explain the value offered by leveraging the natural senses of aquatic wildlife, which often extend beyond sight, sound, and touch, and include the ability to detect subtle electro-magnetic and chemical changes in the water around them.

This DARPA promotional image shows an encroaching submersible drone being detected first by wildlife, followed by sensor nodes transmitting that information to satellites in orbit. (DARPA)

The United States Navy recently took delivery of the Sea Hunter Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, the world’s largest unmanned vessel and projected to be the future of submarine tracking. A network of these drone ships are expected to traverse the open ocean, looking for signs of advanced diesel electric submarines as well as their quieter counterparts, nuclear subs. The PALS program could feasibly bolster the effectiveness of this strategy, indicating where potential submersibles may be traveling, and re-directing the ACTUV fleet to the region.

Of course, a number of hurdles exist between DARPA’s plans and fielding a legitimately effective Aquaman program. Wildlife sensors would undoubtedly provide many false positives, even after extensive research was done into natural behaviors, and deploying and maintaining a massive network of sensor nodes would be an enormous undertaking. Nonetheless, with so many stealthy submersible threats on the horizon, PALS may just be the wave of the future.

Feature image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons