DARPA Awards Two $1.6M Contracts for Biological Sensors for Subterranean Surveillance

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded separate $1.6 million contracts to Raytheon BBN Technologies Corp. and Signature Science LLC for the development of new kinds of biological sensors that can detect underground disturbances or the presence of buried materials of interest.

The BioReporters for Subterranean Surveillance program plans to use indigenous and engineered plants to sense changes of interest to military commanders in natural and built environments. These changes could include the presence of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) threats. Bio Reporters should be able to sense a phenomenon at least one meter below the surface, propagate a signal to the surface within seven days, and be continuously detectable on the surface at a distance of ten meters over the subsequent seven days. Such biological sensors would be energy-independent – increasing their potential for wide distribution – while reducing risks associated with deployment and maintenance of traditional sensors. These technologies could also potentially support humanitarian operations by, for example, detecting un-exploded ordnance in post-conflict settings.

Current biological reporter systems do not have sufficient capability to detect subterranean events, and mechanical detectors used for sensing events of interest below ground require precise positioning and do not cover large areas.

The Bio Reporter study will last for 18 months and will include laboratory research and proof-of-concept demonstrations of biological sensing systems in field tests with the end goal of developing biological sensors, signal transducers, and reporters that can reveal subterranean phenomena at a distance.