Robots to replace mine-hunting US Navy dolphins

AP, SAN DIEGO, California

Mon, Dec 03, 2012 - Page 7

Some dolphins used by the US Navy to track down mines will soon lose their jobs to robots, but they will be reassigned, not retired.

Starting in 2017, 24 of the US Navy’s 80 military-trained dolphins will be replaced by a 3.6m unmanned torpedo-shaped vehicle, newspaper UT San Diego reported.

The military said the machines can do some of the same mine-hunting duties as the sea creatures. In addition, they can be manufactured quickly, compared with the seven years it takes to train a dolphin.

However, the dolphins will not be relieved of duty. They will be used along with sea lions for port security and retrieving objects from the sea floor, the newspaper said.

The US Navy’s US$28 million marine mammal program dates back to the late 1950s, and once included killer whales and sharks. Based in San Diego, it currently uses 80 bottle-nosed dolphins and 40 California sea lions.

In recent years, dolphins have been deployed to Iraq and Bahrain to patrol for enemy divers and mark the locations of mines.

Using their innate sonar, the mammals find and mark mines in shallow water, in deep water when tethers are used, and on the bottom where sediment cover and plant growth can hide the devices.

Dolphins are carried aboard ships in large movable pools about 6m in diameter. Dolphins traveled on the amphibious ship Gunston Hall in 2003 for the Iraq war.

Most of the US Navy’s dolphins and sea lions are housed at Point Loma Naval Base, in pools sectioned off from the bay. Others guard navy submarine bases in Georgia and Washington state, UT San Diego said.

The US military is responsible for the mammals throughout their lives, even after they are retired from active duty. Sometimes the dolphins are loaned to animal parks, such as Sea World, later in life.