Replaced by Robots
The U.S. Navy has a high-tech plan to replace dolphins on dangerous undersea missions
Dolphins will continue to work for the Navy on other important missions. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Brien Aho)
Smart and speedy, dolphins are known for their ability to learn all kinds of amazing skills and tricks. In the U.S. Navy’s National Marine Mammal Program, dolphins have even been used to locate underwater mines—dangerous bombs hidden at sea during wars and often left there. But now, specially designed robots will replace dolphins on these risky missions.
Boats passing above underwater mines can easily set off the bombs, which could injure passengers and crew. Once located, though, these mines can be safely disabled. Underwater mines are hard for humans to find—but for a dolphin, all it takes is a click.
Dolphins click their tongues to detect what’s around them in dark waters. This is called echolocation. Animals with echolocation abilities can sense the shape, size, and distance of objects around them by releasing a high-pitched click or squeal and analyzing the echo they hear.
Typically, dolphins use their echoes to find friends and food, and to keep safe from predators. The U.S. Navy has learned to use dolphins’ special skills to help protect people too.
But naval dolphins must undergo a lot of training before starting their missions. This training typically takes seven years and requires a lot of work. So the Navy has created a 12-foot-long torpedo-shaped robot that can be built in less time than it takes to train a dolphin.
The robot—called the Knifefish—has been designed to find mines by using radar technology to mimic dolphin echolocation. Knifefish won’t require the support that dolphins need, such as nearby boats with human handlers, or a constant supply of fish to eat.
TRICKS FOR TREATS
Dolphins, whales, and sea lions have been performing important underwater jobs for the U.S. Navy since 1960. Animals in the National Marine Mammal Program have been trained to guard submarines, carry cameras for undersea surveillance, and deliver equipment during naval missions below the waves.
Right now, 24 of the Navy’s 80 dolphins are used to find mines. The animals are released in waters that may have mines. When a dolphin senses an object that could be a mine, it swims back to the Navy boat and presses a red ball with its nose.
Human divers are then sent to confirm that the dolphin has found a mine that needs to be disabled. The dolphin is rewarded with food—typically sardines, herring, or squid.
The Navy hopes to replace its dolphin mine-detecting team with robots within five years. But the dolphins will still be an important part of the Navy. They will be reassigned to other jobs once the Knifefish robots take over the job.
But members of the Armed Forces that have worked with the dolphins are grateful for their past help with the mines. Sergeant Scott Young tells Smithsonian magazine, “Without the dolphins, we would probably still be out there trying to clear those waterways.”