Robolobsters and Mind-Controlled Sharks

ByABC News
March 23, 2006, 11:41 AM

— -- From the use of war dogs and horses by the Romans to Hannibal's elephants to modern naval programs involving dolphins and beluga whales, animals have long played a role in mankind's feuds.

In the quest to conquer the enemy, humans have looked to Mother Nature for help and inspiration for thousands of years. And today is no different.

"Animals have been part of military operations since there have been military operations," said Noah Shachtman of "They have been the fighting man's best friend for generations and in modern-day warfare that's still the case."

When researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency look for innovations to keep the U.S. military at the top of the technology heap, they need only look out their windows.

"Over the centuries, biological systems have evolved unique capabilities to find a mate, find food, basically the things they need to do to sustain life," said Jan Walker, spokeswoman for DARPA.

Walker said that the beings that walk, crawl, fly and swim across our planet have developed ways to survive and to accomplish tasks, and we can learn from them.

"In some cases, biological systems have developed unique abilities," she said. "There's a beetle whose life cycle includes laying eggs in the bark of a burned tree. It has the ability to sense a forest fire from huge distances away so that it can get there to lay its eggs, and we want to know, how do they do that?"

Though it may sound like science fiction, DARPA at one point sponsored research to understand more about how sharks detect things that don't belong in the water.

"Sharks have a unique ability to track chemical plumes in the water," she explained. "We sponsored research that studied that ability, and so we implanted electrodes so that we could learn what part of the brain was active as the animal sensed the plume."

DARPA doesn't talk too much about applications, but the idea of remote-controlled shark spies was widely reported as one possible application.