U.S. Navy set to replace trained sea mammals with robots

Published 6 November 2009

Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy has trained hundreds of sea mammals — dolphins, sea lions, and seals – for various under water missions, including detecting explosives, interceding hostile swimmers, helping locate underwater cables, and general reconnaissance tasks; as these torpedo size underwater robots get cheaper and more capable, the sea mammal program will be phased out

The U.S. Navy has expanded the job description for the hundred or so trained sea mammals (dolphins, sea lions, and seals). The animals have now been trained to carry a tow line down to an underwater object so that it can be hauled up or be brought into view. Some of the mammals are also trained to patrol an area, equipped with a harness containing a camera.

Strategy Page reports that two years ago, the navy sent thirty trained dolphins and sea lions to help guard a submarine base in Puget Sound (near Seattle, Washington) against hostile swimmers. The dolphins are trained to either drop beacons, if they spot a swimmer, or slip a cuff around a swimmers leg. The cuff is attached to a rope, and this allows the dolphins handler to reel in the swimmer.

In 2003 some of these sea mammals were sent to the Persian Gulf to guard against hostile swimmers getting near coalition ships or port facilities with bombs. Called the “Mk 6 anti-swimmer dolphin system,” these dolphins normally worked with Explosive Ordnance Disposal units. This is because the dolphins are mainly trained to search for underwater explosives and mines, using their natural sonar ability.

About as intelligent as dogs, each sea mammal bonds with its handler. Without that bond, the sea mammals could just wander off and not come back when turned loose to work. Occasionally a sea mammal will disappear for a few days, particularly when there are wild members of the same species in the area. Dolphins and sea lions are pack animals, however, and it is difficult for a domesticated sea mammal to be accepted into a group living in the wild. Moreover, these are domesticated animals, and often prefer the company of humans, especially their handlers. It takes about 18 months to train a new animal, and most can continue to serve 10-20 years, before being retired.

The U.S. Navy has been training the sea mammals since the 1960s, and has found that they are as trainable as dogs, but live twice as long. When too old to work, dolphins and sea lions are retired to a facility which feeds them, looks after their health, and lets them out for swims in the open water.

As successful as the sea mammals have been, they sea-mammal program may not be around for much longer. The U.S. Navy is replacing them with underwater robots. As these torpedo size machines get cheaper and more capable, the sea mammal program will be phased out.