DARPA turning plants into stealth environmental sensors

apt darpa
© DARPA

DARPA is working on a new network of spies, but it won't be a network of robots or drones, this time it will be plants. The agency is looking to make plants into super sensors that can give detailed information about their surroundings.

Plants already naturally signal when they come in contact with stressors in their environment, but this new program called Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) would tap into those reactions in order to gather data about an area. Researchers plan to modify the genomes of plants so that certain stimuli like chemicals, pathogens, radiation or electromagnetic signals will trigger specific responses that can be read and analyzed. These modifications wouldn't affect the plants' ability to thrive.

The plant systems would energy independent since they would work with the plants' biology and they'd also be undetectable surveillance.

The plant sensors could be used in other non-military applications too. They could be genetically modified to detect landmines or unexploded ordinance from past conflicts to keep communities safe.

"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," said Program Manager for APT, Blake Bextine. "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."

The goal is to modify as few of the plants' traits as possible. The researchers will perform trials in laboratories and greenhouses first before moving beyond into natural environments. The monitoring of the plants will be carried out by already existing technology that is capable of measuring a plant's temperature, reflectance chemical make up and more from a distance.

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