Defense officials want to go beyond radar or sonar to scan across large expanses of ocean by using thousands of small, low-cost floats to serve as a distributed sensor network — a camera-type network floating across the seas, always monitoring.

This month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which deals with the future of combat for the Department of Defense, will field proposals about how to accomplish that during the new Ocean of Things program.

The program could also have applications beyond the battlespace, as DARPA aims to make certain sensors commercially available. These sensors will provide accurate location tracking and collect data such as ocean temperature and sea state, according to the agency website.

Ocean sensors have existed in many forms for years, being used by scientists to calculate temperature patterns, current movement and ocean composition.

Just recently, one of these sensors, a U.S. Navy REMUS 600 research unmanned underwater drone, was reportedly captured off the coast of Yemen by Houthi rebels. These vessels, which range from nine to 18 feet long, can be remotely operated or operated autonomously to gather information. This new project would drastically reduce the size of the devices.

“The goal of the program is to increase maritime awareness in a cost-effective way,” said John Waterston, program manager in the agency’s Strategic Technology Office.

“It would be cost-prohibitive to use existing platforms to continuously monitor vast regions of the ocean. By coupling powerful analytical tools with commercial sensor technology, we plan to create floating sensor networks that significantly expand maritime awareness at a fraction of the cost of current approaches,” Waterston said.

Each of the floating sensors must be made of environmentally safe materials, and comply with all federal laws, executive orders and regulations to protect marine life. They also cannot pose any danger to other vessels.

Beyond the sensors, the competition also focuses on data analytics by looking to competitors to use cloud-based software and analyses to process what the sensors collect. The goal will be to develop algorithms that detect, track and identify nearby vessels.