The U.S. Department of Defense’s wildest group of scientists routinely sponsors competitions and throws out challenges to attract the country’s best engineers and scientists. Tasked with finding solutions to seemingly impossible problems, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) prides itself not on just thinking out of the box, but ignoring or denying that a box even exists. DARPA’s  latest “crazy idea?” Finding a way to accurately and inexpensively detect what the agency refers to as “magnetic whispers from biology” and to be able to do so on the battlefield.

If DARPA can detect and read the tiny electrophysiological currents from each heartbeat or thought, the implications for medicine and healthcare would be immense. These currents cause ripples or changes in a magnetic field. Employing in situ brainwave detection, medics could wave a wand around a combatant’s head to determine the presence of a concussion or other head trauma. Another compelling application of tiny electrical pulse detection could be in controlling artificial limbs by thought. The greatest challenge to detecting the tiny currents is the earth’s own powerful magnetic field. A solution to the DARPA-proposed challenge will have to detect tiny biological magnetic signals from highly variable ambient natural magnetic fields, in addition to the planet’s own confounding magnetism. Solutions will like require previously-undiscovered methods of shielding or approaching the problem in a whole new way.

DARPA calls the program Atomic Magnetometer for Biological Imaging In Earth’s Native Terrain or AMBIIENT. The agency is hosting a Proposers Day for the AMBIIENT program at the DARPA Conference Center in Arlington, Virginia from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM EDT on April 3, 2017 . Advanced registration is required.  Additional information about is available in a Special Notice (DARPA-SN-17-27) posted on (