Leslie Zychowski

May 8th 2019

Lighting Up the World with Bioluminescence Technology


The glow of a firefly as dusk arrives on a warm, summer night. The radiant tentacles of a comb jellyfish deep in the dark abyss of the ocean. The bright rhythm of a glowworm as it moves through a humid cave.

What do all of these organisms have in common? Their illuminating shades of green, blue and yellow are almost magical and present a beautiful spectacle on both land and sea, creating bright, vivid sparks of color. This natural phenomenon ignites a keen sense of discovery for researchers, technologists and scientists.

This magic, known as bioluminescence, or the production and emission of light by a living organism, is most often seen with underwater living organisms, but bioluminescence can also play a role in national security.

Where do the two intersect? Recent technological innovations have begun to challenge the idea of bioluminescence, transforming how we light our world for purposes such as medical research and military defense, as well as other key applications.

One application for bioluminescence that could impact defense is being explored through Northrop Grumman’s Target Acquisition via Bioluminescence and Snapping Shrimp (TABSS) project.

TABSS, which was recently awarded to Northrop Grumman by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Biological Technology Office under its Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program, is taking expertise in sensing to a new level, using undersea organisms to assist in passively detecting adversarial manned and unmanned vessels in the water.

Northrop Grumman will use both light and sound emitted from different underwater organisms such as plankton, jellyfish, and snapping shrimp to develop sensing hardware with increased sensitivity to achieve greater sensing range and endurance. It will also apply machine learning to recognize behavioral patterns in the marine environment to help differentiate target vessels from confounders such as dolphins, sharks and whales.

Biological sensors occupy every maritime environment and have evolved multi-modal sensing capabilities across many domains – electrical, acoustic, optical (including in extremely low light), magnetic and chemical, and even tactile structures, in the form of mechanoreceptors, that are capable of detecting and triangulating minute changes in fluid flow as well as sources of disturbances.

The TABSS Project, which involves advancing optical and acoustic sensing technologies as well as radar-related processing and machine learning, adds a new dimension to sensing that has not been fully explored and has application from undersea to space.

Northrop Grumman’s team includes expertise with undersea biological organisms from Duke University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The University of Memphis and Coda Octopus Colmek will contribute to the design, model and build of the sensing system. Northrop Grumman will apply its knowledge in undersea systems, Side-Looking Sonar, seabed warfare, submarine warfare and counter-unmanned underwater vehicle warfare.

To learn more about the PALS program, click here.