Will fish be used as underwater spies by DARPA in the near future?

FLORIDA—The United States Navy has a history of using marine mammals, specifically dolphins and sea lions, for service purposes. Learning about this fact surprised some, especially after a beluga whale that was reportedly a Russian spy made a big splash for his altruistic tendencies. Several news outlets, however, have been reporting on a new study by United States Defense Advanced  Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which will survey fish for the possibility of using them as underwater spies.

The subjects of the study, which has been named Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors or “PALS,” will largely consist of Goliath grouper, black sea bass and snapping shrimp, according to an article by earth.com. The program, which was announced in 2018, has received grants in the amount of $45 million and is said to greatly advance military surveillance tactics.

Employing fish and other microorganisms is sure to be divisive: Is this simply a strange practice or will the program actually yield a major breakthrough for marine science?

Lori Adornato, manager of initiative for DARPA, told The Independent, “The PALS program was developed to leverage the great sensitivity that organisms have in the ocean to changes in their environment.” She also stated the living organisms, in contrast to robots, computers or other sonar (which is most commonly used), provide “a lot more flexibility in how you would observe things in the ocean.”

Fish, for instance, have a much wider scale of sensory reactions to their environment versus technology. Goliath grouper have been known to be sensitive to their surroundings, and the agency believes the fish could be of assistance in detecting enemy drones, nuclear submarines and other underwater threats to security.

The Independent cited at least two challenges when using marine animals for an underwater operation – most notably the animal’s behavior and understanding it. A specially designed software system will be used to study the animals as well as a combination of other technology, such as hydrophones, cameras and other sensory equipment.

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