US Navy Bomb-Sniffing Dolphins Get The Axe, Replaced By Robots
December 3, 2012

US Navy Bomb-Sniffing Dolphins Get The Axe, Replaced By Robots

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Dolphins are remarkable creatures. Their impeccable eyesight, exceptional sonar abilities and gracefulness underwater not only make them an undersea wonder, it also aids in their ability to hunt and track down prey. Marine biologists are well aware of the intelligence of dolphins and have been studying and training them for years.

These gentle marine mammals have even been used for national security, protecting our borders and the US Navy from intruders and underwater explosives. After September 11, the military branch has been using dolphins in Bahrain and Iraq to search for mines.

“Everyone is familiar with security patrol dogs. You may even know that because of their exceptionally keen sense of smell, dogs like beagles are also used to detect drugs and bombs, or land mines,” reads an explanation of the Marine Mammal Program on the Navy´s Website.

“But just as the dog's keen sense of smell makes it ideal for detecting land mines, the US Navy has found that the biological sonar of dolphins, called echolocation, makes them uniquely effective at locating sea mines so they can be avoided or removed. Other marine mammals like the California sea lion also have demonstrated the ability to mark and retrieve objects for the Navy in the ocean.”

Last Friday, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that the Navy will now be replacing these dolphins and giving their jobs to 12-foot torpedo-shaped robots.

Mike Rothe, head of biosciences at the Navy´s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SPAWAR) in San Diego, told the Tribune that only 24 of the Navy´s 80 mine hunting dolphins will be replaced, starting in 2017.

The Navy also employs 40 sea lions for similar tasks, though Rothe has said these sea lions will still have their jobs in the future.

“About a quarter of (the Navy dolphins) would be affected. But it´s not like they are going to go jobless. We have other assignments,” explained Rothe. “We are certain that there´s going to be fewer mine-hunting dolphins.”

The new torpedo robots will be used to hunt for enemy mines and can be manufactured much more quickly than a dolphin can be trained. As it stands, it takes the Navy´s $28 million Marine Mammal Program 7 years to fully train a dolphin to look for underwater mines or enemy divers. These robots are also entirely replaceable should a mission go awry.

The replacement robot, known as Kingfish, has been developed by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems in Point Loma. This long, sleek robot is completely unmanned and programmed to go about its mission. It can run for 24 hours underwater, collecting information about the activities going on under the sea, providing the Navy with a picture of what´s happening in these foreign ports.

According to the Tribune, Kingfish is a larger cousin of a previous bot named Swordfish which has already been used in a few limited missions. Kingfish has already been shown off to the public in a mine countermeasure exercise which took place in the Persian Gulf this September. Though the Navy plans to have these robots fully implemented by 2017, Rothe has said the total cost of this new program is still undetermined.