K-Dog, a bottle-nose dolphin belonging leaps out of the Persian Gulf in front of Sgt. Andrew Garrett while training near the USS Gunston Hall. On its pectoral fin is a "pinger" that allows the handler to keep track of the dolphin's whereabouts.
Credit: U.S. Navy / Public Domain
U.S. Navy-trained dolphins and sea lions have helped detect and disable underwater mines for decades. But a growing swarm of robots will allow the Navy's squads of sea mammals to begin retiring by 2017, the Navy says.
The sea mammals have used their natural sonar or low-light vision to help detect mine threats and even call out enemy divers since the 1960s — dolphins in particular helped mark mines during the Persian Gulf War and Iraq War. Their exemplary service is drawing to a close as the Navy turns to a growing fleet of cheaper robots to do the job, said Captain Frank Linkous, head of the US Navy's Mine Warfare Branch, in a BBC Future interview.
Navy-trained sea mammals underwent different types of training depending on their capabilities. For instance, dolphins used their biological sonar to detect the location of sea mines so that they could report back to human handlers with yes or no responses. They could also mark mine locations with buoy lines, or even prepare to disable the mines by attaching explosive charges to them.
But Linkous pointed to the Navy's plans for a Knifefish robot capable of using sonar searching the ocean depths for mines by 2017. Such robots would cost much less than training, caring for and transporting animals such as dolphins and sea lions.
The impending retirement of the Navy's sea mammals is part of the broader trend of the U.S. military using robots. Navy efforts include testing robot boats armed with missiles and experimenting with its large X-47B drone capable of taking off from the decks of aircraft carriers.