The Navy's Bomb-Detecting Dolphins Are Being Retired by Robots

Bomb-sniffing dolphins are headed the way of the dodo.

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Nov 9 2012, 5:26am

The U.S. Army trains German Shepherds to sniff out land mines and improvised explosives. The U.S. Navy does the same thing, except with dolphins. Well, maybe not for much longer.

After a half century of dedication and duty, the underwater mine-hunting sea mammals are being discharged in favor a small fleet of bomb-detecting robots. Captain Frank Linkous, who runs the Navy’s Mine Warfare Branch, told the BBC that the Sea Mammal Program will be phased out by 2017 and replaced with a fleet of cheaper robot minesweepers called Knifefish.

The unmanned Knifefish bots (picture above) look like torpedoes, and will be sent on mine scouting missions as long as 16 hours. They’re much more cost-effective than dolphins, which need to be transported overseas in custom carriers when duty calls. More than that, Navy dolphins apparently “have a pension” and “are cared for the rest of their lives,” Linkous said.

That’s one badass dolphin.

In January, NPR asked a retired admiral who commanded ships in Bahrain about the extent of dolphin use in the Strait of Hormuz, a popular shipping lane for oil that some countries suspect Iran of lacing with underwater mines. All the admiral would say is that the mammals were “present in the theater” and “astounding in their ability to detect underwater objects.”

Since the Cold War days, the Navy has specially trained dolphins and sea lions for mine-duty below the surface of the water. The Navy had 80 bottlenose dolphins and 30 California sea lions in the ranks, ready to deploy from their base in San Diego, as of 2010. According to a Seattle Times report in 2003, the animals only sweep for and are detect mines. When they find one, they are trained to drop a transponder nearby, the report says. More recent reports show that the role of dolphins is actually much more involved in disabling mines, recovering neutralized mines and even planting live mines, and also patrolling waters for enemy divers. When they find a live mine, dolphins are trained to attach a small explosive to it and swim away.

Dolphins use highly perceptive echolocation to spot and identify objects — the same way submarines use sonar. Dolphins, however, can differentiate between a quarter and a dime on the seafloor even when they’re blindfolded. A certain type of dolphin native to South America can even sense electricity in the water. It’s an evolutionary function that allows them to detect the heartbeat or muscle twitches of potential prey.

Combine those super-powers with a trait to please humans and you’ve got a solid foundation for a dolphin reserve. In fact, rumors had it that the government was training an special unit of killer dolphins back when military researchers first started exploring dolphins’ abilities back in the 1960s.

The Navy’s revamp of its mine program doesn’t end with the Knifefish. A whole cadre of cool-sounding robots, like the Kingfish and the SeaFox, are in the pipeline. It looks like the drone war is finally heading underwater.

Top image via Dolphins of War

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