DARPA Wants To Train Sea Life To Become Spies


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Dolphins swim next to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), Oct. 16, 2017. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released

Sometimes, it’s almost like the US military’s research institute DARPA actually wants to start crazy conspiracy theories about itself. In one of their latest proposals, DARPA has voiced their plans to militarize marine creatures and make sea life become spies.

The Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (which neatly shortens to PALS) program will study sea life to explore the vast expanse of the world’s oceans, gather information, and "spy" on any suspicious activity. Their hope is that the creatures will serve as mobile sensors that detect the movement of underwater vehicles. Specialized computer systems will monitor the sea life's behavior and response to stimuli in the environment, then translate it into actionable information that can be used by the US Navy. 


The US Navy already use bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions for military missions such as mine detection and equipment recovery, although they have never trained its marine mammals for attack missions against people or ships. PALS are currently carrying out experiments to see how different forms of sea life are suited to the work, so there's no word yet on which species will be sleuthing, although it could include anything from plankton to porpoises. 

“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,” program manager Dr Lori Adornato explained in a statement last month.


It perhaps seems like an unnecessary eccentric idea, but DARPA said the use of marine organisms as spies comes with a bunch of practical advantages over mechanical vehicles or robotic devices. For one thing, these new sea spies will be self-replicating and self-sustaining.

“The US 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,” added Dr Adornato. “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.”


Just a few months ago, DARPA also announced their plans to create bioengineered spy plants that could serve as “discreet, self-sustaining sensors capable of reporting via remotely monitored, programmed responses to environmental stimuli.” They also planted the idea of using genetically-engineered microorganisms to terraform Mars in the eventuality that humankind jumps ship and heads for another world.


  • tag
  • fish,

  • conservation,

  • military,

  • DARPA,

  • spy,

  • sealife