If any organization embodies our idea of the classic mad inventors, just running amock with crazy ideas, it’s DARPA. A jumping dog robot? Sure. Self-guiding bullets? What can go wrong? Vertical take-off plane? Well, why not? Bioengineered spy plants? Wait, what?
Yes, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA – the part of the US Department of Defense responsible for developing technologies to be used by the military, is planning to bioengineer plants for intelligence gathering.
DARPA says its new program “envisions plants as discreet, self-sustaining sensors capable of reporting via remotely monitored, programmed responses to environmental stimuli.” Because that doesn’t sound terrifying at all. Somewhere between 1984’s foliage microphones and the classic “bug” in a pot plant.
OK, the idea isn’t quite as crazy as it seems. The agency is turning to plants, or more specifically Advanced Plant Technologies (APT), to utilize their ability to sense environmental stimuli, engineering them to identify potential threats such as chemical leaks or radiation. Flora, they claim, is the “next generation of intelligence gatherers”.
We’re not talking sentient plants, of course. But if engineers can control the stimuli plants respond to, and how they react, they can program them to detect all sorts, from electromagnetic charges to pathogens in the air. And as plants are self-sustaining, the plan is they will monitor for anything that might trigger them, while living quite happily in the wild with minimal care.
“Plants are highly attuned to their environments and naturally manifest physiological responses to basic stimuli such as light and temperature, but also in some cases to touch, chemicals, pests, and pathogens,” explained Blake Bextine, the DARPA Program Manager for APT.
“Emerging molecular and modeling techniques may make it possible to reprogram these detection and reporting capabilities for a wide range of stimuli, which would not only open up new intelligence streams, but also reduce the personnel risks and costs associated with traditional sensors.”
This isn’t the first time plants have been modified in this way. Previously though, the plants' natural resources were being depleted by having to redirect energy to monitoring. Researchers working on the APT hope to create plants that can be used as sensors, but won’t actually affect the plants' capability of thriving in the natural world, dealing with unknown factors such as animals, insects, and competing plants, hence self-sustaining.
At the moment this idea hasn't even reached proof of concept, though. It will be proposed at the agency's Biological Technologies Offices in Virgina as part of DARPA's APT Proposers Day on December 12. We look forward to seeing what else they come up with.