November 8, 2012 2:52 pm
Some regions of the ocean are littered with mines. They’re dangerous and hard to find. For a while now, the U.S. Navy has used dolphins to find these mines. Their echolocation skills make them great mine-finders. But no longer will the Navy have to risk dolphin life and fin. Just like human jobs, the dolphins are being replaced by robots.
In April, the Navy unveiled its plans for Knifefish, a torpedo-shaped, underwater robot that would roam the seas for up to 16 hours, looking for mines. The 7m- (20ft-) long unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) is still in development, but should be ready by 2017, and will use sonar to hunt mines. “The Knifefish UUV is ultimately intended to be the replacement for the marine mammals,” Linkous says.
Replacing animals is actually hard. Dog noses are way better at sniffing bombs and drugs than any machine we’ve come up with thus far. The dolphin replacements might suffer the same fate, but it might be worth it for the Navy to stick it out with them. Maintaining the mine-finding dolphin corps is hard and expensive. The dolphins are trained, then transported on naval vessels to the areas where the mines might be. Robots may not do as good a job, but they will be cheaper and easier to deal with.
Dolphins should take some solace in the fact that their human bomb-detecting counterparts are also being replaced by robots. BBC Future again:
And it’s not just dolphins that are being moved out of service by robots: the Navy is also hoping to at least reduce reliance on humans who perform dangerous bomb disposal missions, known as explosive ordnance disposal (EOD). The Navy has been moving quickly to rush new robotic technologies to the field, including an unmanned underwater vehicle, known as the Kingfish, and four unmanned surface vessels that the Navy originally bought for anti-submarine warfare, but are now being outfitted with sonar to hunt mines.
Considering the danger of these missions, robots probably are the best creatures for the job—as long as they can find the mines.
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