The menu looks tasty but it is all work and no fillet for DARPA’s seafood

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An artist's rendition depicts how DARPA's PALS concept will work. (DARPA artwork)

WASHINGTON — You may think you are in a specialized seafood restaurant when the names of some of the Pentagon’s newest recruits to detect enemy underwater vehicles are said aloud.

There is Goliath grouper, a large saltwater fish that prefers cruising the Florida Keys, the Bahamas and Caribbean and the coast of Brazil — sometimes drifting to Africa. There is the ever popular black sea bass, which dominates from Maine to around Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico.

And not to be missed is the snapping shrimp, one of the loudest animals anywhere, with the added talent of producing cavitation bubbles to help kill its prey.

Yet tasty as these and other sea creatures can be, it is their ability to sense their surroundings — and not sauté at table side — that has caught the appetite of the Pentagon.

Specifically its innovation wing, DARPA.

Five teams of researchers are developing sensor systems with the goal of detecting and noticing the behavior patterns of Goliath groupers, black sea bass, snapping shrimp and bioluminescent plankton and other micro-organisms.

Once those patterns are established and deemed consistent enough for a data foundation, DARPA researchers will seek to identify the markers when the marine creatures sense and react to the presence of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles.

The program is called PALS — Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors program. DARPA stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It is the Pentagon’s research, innovation, and “no-bad-ideas” wing.

“This new, bio-centric PALS technology will augment the Department of Defense’s existing, hardware-based maritime monitoring systems and greatly extend the range, sensitivity, and lifetime of the military’s undersea surveillance capabilities,” DARPA said in a release last week.

The concept of the PALS program was announced a year ago. Now DARPA has followed it usual route of finding teams of researchers to comb through the challenge and provide pathways to possible success — specifically to develop or apply technologies to record stimulus responses from the creatures and ensure false positives are screened out, DARPA said. Those results then must be successfully shared to remote end users, DARPA said.

For example, one of the five teams — centered at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science — will “tag black sea bass with sensors to track the depth and acceleration behaviors of schools of fish that are perturbed by underwater vehicles,” DARPA said in the release.

“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,” Lori Adornato, PALS program manager, said in the release.

In addition to the five research teams, DARPA also is funding separate development of a seafloor system that uses a hydrophone array and acoustic vector sensor to continuously monitor ambient biological sound in a reef environment for anomalies.

“The system will analyze changes in the acoustic signals radiated by the natural predator-avoidance response of coral reef ecosystem biota, which could offer an indirect mechanism to detect and classify underwater vehicles in near-real time,” DARPA said in the release.

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