It may only be a few years before dolphins are relieved from their service in the United States military.
The U.S. Navy is planning to replace its fleet of mine-tracking dolphins and sea lions with underwater robots as soon as five years from now.
Starting in 2017, about one-quarter of the Navy’s 80 trained dolphins will give their jobs to unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).
The Navy has relied on dolphins and other sea mammals to detect underwater mines since the 1960’s due to the animals’ incredibly precise innate sonar. Currently, dolphins and sea lions are used in the organization to seek out and in some cases, destroy, sea mines using their biological sonar, a process referred to as echolocation.
But because training and caring for the dolphins is a costly endeavor, the Navy has been busy looking for inanimate alternatives. After years of research, the organization has arrived on a suitable substitute: a torpedo-shaped vehicle capable of many of the same mine-detecting skills.
Not all of the dolphins will be dismissed, however. Because technology has not yet matched the animals’ full capabilities, the Navy will still be keeping some around.
"Because of the unique capabilities of the marine mammals in the shallow water environment, there are several critical missions that they perform that cannot be matched by technology or hardware in the near-term,” James Fallin, a spokesman for the group that oversees the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, told UT San Diego. “While the Navy is working on developing replacement technologies, there is no definitive pathway charged for a full replacement of the operational use of marine marine mammals."
Image: Jay Ebberly/Flickr