U-T San Diego
December 1, 2012
Navy Dolphins’ Work Will Be Outsourced
Robots to pick up animals’ tasks, like some detection of mines
By Jeanette Steele, U-T
Like the factory worker and travel agent before them, some Navy dolphins trained to hunt down mines are scheduled to be replaced by computers in five years.
However, the Navy’s marine mammals aren’t going away. Military-trained dolphins and sea lions will continue to be used for port security and retrieving objects from the sea floor — jobs they are still better at than machines.
The Navy’s $28 million marine mammal program, headquartered in San Diego, uses 80 bottle-nosed dolphins and 40 California sea lions.
Armed by Mother Nature with superb eyesight, sophisticated sonar and the ability to dive 500 feet without the bends, these creatures have been deployed to Iraq and Bahrain during the post-Sept. 11 wars to keep ports safe for American ships.
They patrol for enemy divers. They ping mines and mark the location for handlers. It’s a program that goes back to naval research started in the late 1950s that once included killer whales and sharks.
But now Navy officials say that an unmanned underwater vehicle — a 12-foot torpedo-shaped robot — can do the some of the same mine-hunting jobs. And the machines can be manufactured quickly, unlike the seven years it takes to train a dolphin for duty.
Only 24 of the Navy’s 80 dolphins are involved in mine-hunting work that will go to robots starting in 2017. Those dolphins will be reassigned to other tasks, a Navy official said. Sea lion jobs are safe.
“We are certain that there’s going to be fewer mine-hunting dolphins,” said Mike Rothe, head of the biosciences division at the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific in San Diego.
But he added that there’s potential to shift these dolphins into a slightly different kind of mine-hunting — the ability to find bombs hidden on the bottom of a body of water.
“About a quarter of (the Navy dolphins) would be affected. But it’s not like they are going to go jobless. We have other assignments,” he said.
Most of the 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.
Civilian trainers teach the sea lions two skills: To find swimmers underwater and to retrieve objects from deep water.
During a recent demonstration in San Diego, sea lions Vader and Jabba waddled out of their cages and slipped into the bay. One by one, they found a wetsuit-clad swimmer nearby.
Their training dictates that they swim back to the boat, notify the crew by touching a disc, and grab a claw-like apparatus in their mouths.
The sea lion returns to the swimmer and attaches the apparatus to the person’s thigh. It snaps onto the leg and won’t come off — like a boot on a car with too many parking tickets.
Naval security guards then pull up the invading swimmer — who might have been plotting to bomb a U.S. ship — using the line attached to the claw.
The Navy sea lion’s other mission is to find objects, such as inert missiles placed during training exercises, on the ocean floor.
Using its spectacular underwater hearing and eyesight, the mammal is trained to search out the object. It carries a plate in its mouth and hooks on a line attached to the plate.
Those jobs are safe because, at present, robots aren’t good at them or cost effective, Rothe said.
For example, “finding a swimmer is one thing, interdicting it is another,” he said. “Right now the sea lions are the only nonlethal interdiction system that the Navy has in the inventory.”
Dolphins also find invading swimmers. But their special job is mines — a long-important task in the sea service, as enemy mines have been responsible for 14 of the 19 Navy ships destroyed or damaged since 1950.
But with Iran threatening to mine the Strait of Hormuz, the pinch point of Middle East oil shipping, the topic of mines is again important.
Earlier this year, the Navy doubled the number of minesweeper ships in that region by moving four from San Diego. These wood-hulled mine countermeasure vessels do broad sweeps for obstructions in the sea.
The job of Navy dolphins is to find and mark mines using their innate sonar location ability. They can mark mines in shallow water, in deep water when tethers are employed and on the bottom despite sediment cover and plant growth — three separate skills.
These dolphins are also trained, just like the Marines, to be “expeditionary” — or to take the fight on the road.
Dolphins are carried aboard Navy ships in large movable pools, about 20 feet in diameter. Dolphins traveled on the amphibious ship Gunston Hall in 2003 for the Iraq war.
They work for sardines. And herring, smelt and squid.
And these marine mammals have a pretty good pension program. The Navy is responsible for their care throughout their lives, even after they stop performing missions. Sometimes Navy dolphins are loaned to animal parks, such as Sea World, later in life.
The Navy breeds dolphins to replenish its own ranks, though the project used wild ones until 1989. Breeding is not an option for sea lions.
The military only uses male sea lions who are neutered — to curb aggression, improve health and keep weight at a manageable 300 pounds. New recruits are often strays who became stranded as youths.
While young marine mammals train, the replacement — at least for some — sits not far away at the naval base.
Space and Naval Warfare Systems engineers in Point Loma have developed a robot that can run for 24 hours underwater. Called Kingfish, the unmanned vehicle is programmed, then placed in the water. Its job is to collect information on the underwater picture.
Kingfish, the newer larger version of a prototype called Swordfish, has been used in a limited way for more than two years. It was demonstrated publicly by the Navy during a mine countermeasures exercise in the Persian Gulf in September. The exercise, with 30 U.S. allies, served as a muscle-flexing of the American anti-mine ability.
The total cost of the Kingfish program, compared to the marine mammals, is still not determined, Rothe said.