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Marine Sciences Division

Signal Detection and Characterization

Platform Development and Testing

There is a growing national need to improve maritime surveillance and reconnaissance. The United States has 95,000 miles of coastline, and the nearshore regions are home to the majority of the nation's population, as well as major industries, ecologically and economically important natural resources, and some of the world's busiest maritime traffic. The maintenance of resilient commercial and recreational activities relies on our capability to detect and track threats and to establish the methods to rapidly transmit data so appropriate responses can occur in a time effective manner.

Research at MSL is meeting this need by developing diverse sensors that can be deployed with a variety of unmanned systems. The sensor payloads sample multiple domains including water and sediment and can measure fundamental chemical parameters such as pH, oxygen, CO2, and more sophisticated signatures requiring optical (such as spectroscopy), electrical, and biologically based sensors. The data can be stored for later retrieval or exported in real-time to remote users. These development efforts require implementation of interdisciplinary fields such as fluid mechanics, material science, electrical engineering, physics, and oceanography. Additional research pursued by MSL scientists seeks to improve standalone automated data acquisition and embedded systems design that is integrated with the needs of maritime surveillance requiring ruggedizing mechanical packaging to withstand harsh marine environments.

A recent project by MSL scientists developed a multisensory suite and integrated it onto a mobile trailer for the purpose of recording, identifying, and characterizing maritime threats from small vessels. The mobile trailer incorporates X-band radar, EO and IR cameras, hydrophones (tethered and standalone), onboard processing with specific triggering algorithms, and select cellular data exfiltration. The system is rapidly deployable and can be used as a forward-placed system to characterize locations for possible illicit activities.

Synthetic Biology, Genetic Engineering, and Bioinformatics

Synthetic biology entails an unprecedented ability to create or control molecules, cells, and complex biological systems. Variably defined, it may entail aspects of genetic manipulation; molecular, cellular, tissue, and organismal engineering; molecular fabrication; and the computational tools to support design and workflow.

A particular strength of the Biotechnology Team at MSL lies in the genetic manipulation of living cells and biomolecules. Staff work with a diverse range of viruses, prokaryotes, and eukaryotes, as well as with nanomaterial-biomolecular conjugates. Projects entail the use of synthetic biology to modify cells to operate as living sensors, the design of DNA and peptide aptamers, and modified viral materials for various screening operations. Other projects have examined the design and adaptation of cells and enzymes for a variety of industrial (e.g., bioenergy) and bioremediation applications.

A unique skill of the group entails the development of new genetic systems for non-traditional species of prokaryotes and microeukaryotes. One application entails the development of genetic tools for use with marine species to enable advanced physiology studies entailing carbon and nutrient cycling in coastal and open ocean environments. MSL scientists are developing a variety of chromosomal and extrachromosomal vectors, promoters, regulatory elements, and supporting methods of transformation, screening, and selection.



A signature is the unique or distinguishing measurement, pattern, or collection of data that identifies or characterizes a phenomenon (object, action, or behavior) of interest. The discovery of new signatures and the practical application of signatures in detecting and monitoring phenomena are routine activities for scientists at MSL. Our research teams identify, validate, apply, and adapt novel signatures to work with complex, evolving, and noisy data and environments. These skills are applied to challenges in national security, energy, the environment, industry, and health.

Staff has combined experience working with:

  • Predictive analytics that enable both positive and negative detection events to be placed in an informative context
  • Orthogonal features and strategies that provide greater confidence and risk reduction
  • Laboratory and industrial practices in addition to natural phenomena that generate signatures
  • Environmental field research to intercept, sample for, and track signatures
  • 4th dimensional modeling of the movement and biogeochemical transformation of signatures that:
    • Optimizes sensor placement and sample collection
    • Enables the detection and correlation of daughter products to the source phenomena
    • Provides meaningful attribution of positive detection events and provides useful contextual information for negative results
  • Laboratory and fieldable methods needed for detection, characterization, and analysis
  • Ruggedization of sampling and sensor systems
  • Sampling, preservation, and detection of signatures from biological tissues and all natural and industrial environments
  • Signatures entailing cells, biomolecules and biochemicals, petrochemicals, metals, isotopes, geochemicals, acoustics, magnetometry, and imagery using IR, radar, SAR, and LiDAR

Current and past challenges include: small boat identification and tracking; marine mammal detection; bird and bat detection and identification around wind turbines; signatures of genetic modification; chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives (CBRNE) signatures; eDNA; contaminant source tracking; and more.

Marine Sciences Laboratory

Research Areas

PNNL Websites