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December 04, 2012

Mine Sensing Robots Put Dolphins out of a Job



In Douglas Adams’ sci-fi classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, hyper-intelligent dolphins flee the doomed earth, leaving a final message “So long and thanks for all the fish.” That, of course, is a work of fiction, but the way things are moving in the US Navy, a whole host of dolphins will be saying goodbye soon in order to make room for a new military robotics program. Apparently, even marine mammals are feeling the employment crunch in these tough economic times.

Since the 1950s, the Navy has invested $28 million in a marine mammal mine-sensing program that has included not only dolphins but whales and sharks as well (even though we all know sharks are not mammals). It seems the sun is about to set on this program, though, as the Navy is going forward with a plan to replace Flipper’s brethren with 12-foot long torpedo-like robots by 2017.

Here is a description of the program, right from the minds in the US Navy:”Just as the dog's keen sense of smell makes it ideal for detecting land mines, the U.S. Navy has found that the biological sonar of dolphins, called echolocation, makes them uniquely effective at locating sea mines so they can be avoided or removed. Other marine mammals like the California sea lion also have demonstrated the ability to mark and retrieve objects for the Navy in the ocean. In fact, marine mammals are so important to the Navy that there is an entire program dedicated to studying, training, and deploying them. It is appropriately called the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP).”

However, the Navy feels that the seven-year training program required to get these dolphins up to sniff – er, snuff – is too risky, and leaves Navy vessels vulnerable to aquatic mines. The robots can be manufactured quickly and programmed to perform the same tasks as the dolphins.

The dolphins, it seems, had no comment on this story.

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Edited by Rich Steeves


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