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DARPA is calling for proposals to detect minuscule magnetic forces in the body

Why it matters to you

Poker tables may need special shielding when pocket-size wands can detect thoughts and intentions.

Uncle Sam’s intrepid scientists are looking for help creating technologies for low-cost devices that can detect the tiniest biological magnetic forces. Researchers at DARPA, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have put out a call for proposals to detect the superweak magnetic fields in humans and other biologic objects.

The goal is to open doors to technology that will work outside heavily magnetic-shielded environments to produce sensor systems that could, for example, detect spinal signals, diagnose concussions, and be used in brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) for controlling prosthetics and external machines by thought. The devices must work just about anywhere.

Keep in mind that DARPA’s overall mission is to find solutions to seemingly impossible challenges — what Google might call a “moonshot” is breakfast food for DARPA. The research organization eschews taking the next step, preferring giant leaps such as cardboard drones that deliver payload then disappear, cameras that can see around corners, and building materials that grow on command.

The agency’s new AMBIENT program (Atomic Magnetometer for Biological Imaging in Earth’s Native Terrain) is “all about ushering magnetic field sensing into a new era in which MEGs (magnetoencephalography), MCGs (magnetocardiography), and an assortment of other wish-list magnetic field sensing techniques become practical realities for a wide range of applications.”

According to DARPA, “Planet Earth has been the biggest buzz kill” holding back biomagnetic sensing. The earth’s magnetic field is a million to a billion times stronger than biology’s “faint magnetic fields” that emanate from human bodies.

Even the latest magnetic field sensors such as Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices (SQUIDs) have a limited range and aren’t reliable when other, much stronger magnetic fields are present, says DARPA. As the agency’s news release states, “Without intense shielding, those magnetic whispers from biology would be lost amidst the blaring din of Earth’s magnetism, even with the best available sensors in play.”

DARPA will host a Proposers Day in Arlington, Virgina, at the DARPA Conference Center on April 3, 2017. Advanced registration is necessary to attend. If you’re interested in submitting a proposal, you can find more information here.