BU Today

Science & Tech

Undersea Spies

Turning sharks into robotic sentries


Click the photo above to watch a video on training sharks to spy.


It seems like science fiction, but the U.S. military would like to use sharks as underwater spies. The folks at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who dream up the future of weapons and military systems, envision squads of sharks prowling the oceans with sensors that could transmit evidence of explosives or other threats.

The military use of marine animals isn’t new. For decades, the navy has used dolphins and sea lions to patrol harbors, salvage expensive hardware, and locate potential sea mines. Indeed, mounting chemical, auditory, or visual sensors on a shark is the easy part. The challenge is finding a way to steer sharks over long distances. Over millions of years, sharks have evolved to pursue one particular target of opportunity — lunch — and military commanders need a way to override that instinct in order to dispatch their shark spies to areas of strategic interest.

DARPA turned to Jelle Atema, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of biology at the Boston University Marine Program, who for many years has been researching how marine animals use their sense of smell. Atema proposed that because sharks are expert at tracking odors over very long distances, the key to steering a shark was to follow its nose. With more than a year of DARPA funding, which ended last year, Atema was able to use electrical stimulation of a shark’s brain, mimicking odor, to guide the shark around a large tank. 

The military has since made the research classified, and it is now run out of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I. But Atema is seeking new funding sources to continue his work on sharks, with potential civilian applications in mind — such as tracking fish populations, changes in ocean temperatures, or chemical spills. 

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.