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Spy Fish? Finned recruits could help military find enemy subs

    July 16, 2019

    The U.S. military is looking into a new tool for underwater surveillance, and it looks like something you might have in your backyard right now.

    It’s fish – specifically, an assortment of marine organisms that signal to each other when they sense movement or foreign objects. In the wild, these communications help animals warn each other about predators. In the world of underwater surveillance, they could help the military detect the presence of enemy drones and submarines.

    Scientists are experimenting with a range of aquatic creatures to see how their natural defense mechanisms might help U.S. forces, according to reports published recently in Scientific American and the BBC. The project – called Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) – is being funded by $45 million in grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

    The research is still in its early stages. The idea, though, is that animals are constantly communicating with each other when they see something unfamiliar in their environments. If they do so in a predictable way, scientists might be able to use that information to detect the presence of things like underwater vehicles.

    Researchers are examining a wide range of marine life to determine which species, if any, might prove useful. One strand of the study is focused on tiny noctiluca, which glow when disturbed. Another is looking at the goliath grouper, a fish that can grow up to 8 feet long and emits a booming sound when divers approach.

    Animals offer a few advantages over traditional technologies. For one, they already live throughout the entire ocean, potentially making them a great choice for long-term, wide-range surveillance. They could also prove less expensive to maintain than other tools.

    Another plus: They would theoretically create a surveillance system that adversaries can’t easily detect. Enemies can pick up on sonar devices, for example, which produce a series of pings that can be used to measure the size and distance of underwater objects. They might not notice animals that already exist in the ocean.

    Researchers don’t know if fish will actually make good spies. Even if they don’t, scientists hope this project will at least help them learn more about the behaviors of all kinds of oceanic creatures.

    Could koi ever play a role in underwater espionage? That seems pretty unlikely. Their bright colors and friendly demeanor make them more suited for life as backyard pets than as undercover agents.

    But who knows? Maybe that’s just what they want you to think.

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