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You might have heard of robots taking over human jobs, but have you heard of robots taking over animal jobs?
Knifefish, the Dolphin Substitute
That is what is currently happening in the US military. Knifefish, an automated underwater unmanned torpedo-like vehicle, is set to take over from dolphins and sea lions, the job of searching the sea floor to detect mines that have been planted by enemy forces.
Knifefish is just part of a new wave of robotics currently being developed in conjunction with the US military.
Dolphins and Sea Lions in the Military
Since the 1960s, the US military has been using Bottlenose Dolphins and California Sea Lions to find hidden mines, and also for other tasks such as guarding restricted waters and detecting enemy divers attempting to gain access to military ships.
During the Iraqi war, dolphins were used in a mine detection and clearing operation in the Persian Gulf to create a safe passageway for humanitarian ships attempting to provide aid.
Dolphins are highly suited to these kinds of tasks. They have a sophisticated biological sonar ability called echolocation. Dolphins emit sounds, which bounce off objects in the surrounding environment, and these echoes give dolphins an incredibly accurate acoustic picture of their environment.
While sea lions do not have the same sophisticated sonar capacities as dolphins, their elite underwater vision makes them expert at locating different kinds of objects on the seafloor.
The US military insists that the mammals are not used for offensive missions, that they are not used to plant mines on enemy ships or to attack unauthorized divers with any kind of underwater darts or guns.
Dolphins and sea lions are trained to simply detect mines and swimmers in restricted areas and to take some action such as clamping a tagging object to a swimmer’s leg or releasing a conical buoy from their snout which floats to the top to alert the military personnel of a present threat.
The Phasing Out of Dolphins and Sea Lions
But now, the military role of dolphins and sea lions is slowly but surely being taken over by ever-developing robotics and sonar equipment.
Knifefish is just one of the several options set to take over the military mine-detecting and underwater surveillance tasks. The sonar data gathered by Knifefish is entered into a computer and compared with other known objects, including different kinds of mines.
According to some, the replacement of dolphins and sea lions by robotics can’t come soon enough. There have long been concerns about both the safety of the mammals in the task of locating mines, and also in their conditions and treatment.