Similarly, the Navy already admits there may still be some specialised missions where sea mammals are needed past 2017.
But what is driving the desire to replace dolphins and sea lions is not their capability, but cost. A dog might deploy with just a handler and food, but when the sea mammals are sent on long trips, they must be transported aboard naval vessels where they are kept in custom enclosures and accompanied by handlers and a portable veterinary clinic with staff.
The costs don’t end there: while a bomb dog typically goes to live with its handler when it retires, dolphins require specialised care. “The Navy is very humane about the way they treat these animals,” says Linkous. “Essentially, these animals have a pension – they are cared for the rest of their lives.”
The sea mammals are a “fantastic system,” says Linkous, but robotic technology will be able to do much of what they can do only cheaper and easier. “Maybe not 100%, but fairly close,” he says.
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.
The Navy is also buying the German-made SeaFox mine hunting system, another robotic underwater vehicle that is guided by a fibre-optic cable and can be used to attach a charge to a mine. Right now, naval divers that are trained as explosive ordnance disposal technicians carry out many critical mine clearing tasks, but technology like the SeaFox will help reduce the number of dives these personnel have to make, according to Linkous.
“This is very much like the concept that EOD technicians have done on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq: greater use of robotic systems to neutralise and destroy IEDs in the field,” Linkous says. “It’s the same concept.”
Does this mean that someday humans will go the same way as the sea mammal program? Probably not anytime soon, says Linkous. Divers can still do some things more effectively than robots.
“There’s an enduring role for EOD [technicians],” he says. “They just do it more quickly.”