Dolphins are widely regarded as one of the smartest creatures on Earth. Because of their capacity to learn and perform tasks, the United States Navy has long used them to locate and destroy sea mines. Now, after nearly 50 years of service, the Sea Mammal Program, which also includes trained sea lions, will be retired. The decision is a result of rising financial costs combined with increasingly viable robotic substitutes.
As a result of this announcement, we will sadly never get to the point where we will see the likes of Darwin, the super-smart dolphin from seaQuest DSV. I was really looking forward to that.
In the 1960s Naval researchers figured out how to harness dolphins’ unique talent for echolocation—the biological sonar the mammals use to navigate—to find enemy mines. Once the targets have been acquired, the dolphins often attach a small explosive charge, or an acoustic transponder, that is then used to destroy the weapon.
While the dolphins themselves do not detonate the mines, they still find themselves in harm’s way. It is possible that the concussion from the explosion could prove fatal, and “being used in this way, they immediately become targets for enemy combatants—including any other dolphins in the area.”
Over the years, the Navy has trained more than 80 dolphins in the ways of bomb detection. But if all goes according to plan, the Sea Mammal Program, and the animal participants, will be replaced starting in 2017.
Back in April of this year, the Navy introduced designs for an underwater robot called Knifefish. Though still in the development stages, the seven-meter-long, “torpedo-shaped,” unmanned underwater vehicle should be able to stay on the job for 16 hours. Like its dolphin counterparts, Knifefish will use sonar to track, identify, and destroy mines.
The Navy also has aims on replacing some human bomb hunters as well. They are working on another UUV, called Kingfish, as well as a quartet of unmanned surface vehicles. These were initially intended to participate in anti-submarine duties, but are now being outfitted with sonar to hunt mines.
These, and various other advances in robot technology, should take the place of human divers who go into the water on hazardous missions to disable mines. The idea is to create a water-based version of the robotic tools that explosive ordinance disposal teams in Iraq and Afghanistan use against IEDs, and hopefully save human lives in the process.