You Know The Robot Invasion Is Real When Mine-Sniffing Dolphins Start Losing Their Jobs

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K-Dog, a U.S. Navy trained dolphin [image credit: U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Brien Aho]

If you’ve lost a job to automation, take heart — it’s more than just humans who are getting muscled out by robots. UT San Diego recently reported that in the next five years, the Navy will be phasing out dolphins from its mine-sniffing operations and replacing them with unmanned underwater vehicles, likely similar to the Seafox drones that were recently deployed to the Strait of Hormuz.

Currently, the plan is to use Knifefish robots. They’re 20-foot long, torpedo-shaped vehicles that can operate for up to 16 hours and developed by General Dynamics.

The $28 million Navy Marine Mammal Program located at Point Loma, which is over 50 years old, currently employs 80 bottlenose dolphins and 40 California sea lions. The dolphins have been used because their sonar ability allows them to detect mines in shallow or deep waters and serve as harbor protection, while sea lions are used to find underwater swimmers and objects and tether them to the boat. The program once included sharks and killer whales as well.

The recent announcement affects only 24 of the dolphins who are tasked with detecting mines. They’ll be reassigned to do what dolphins can still do better than robots: search seafloors for bombs masked by plant growth and sediment.

Considering that it takes seven years for the dolphins to be trained, underwater vehicles offer the advantage of rapid deployment and replacement. While the 12-foot vehicles that are planned to be used are larger than the 4-foot, $100k Seafox drones, the switch is likely a cost saving endeavor as well because mine-sniffing dolphins must be specially transported for assignment in their own large mobile pools with trainers in tow.

In the big picture, Singularity Hub readers know where this is headed. The Navy’s move is just one more example of how robots are going to take jobs away from mammals, humans and dolphins alike.

Unfortunately for dolphins, they can’t take comfort in this transition like humans can by reading books like “Robots Will Steal Your Job But That’s OK.”

[featured image credit: wwarby on flickr]

Discussion — 3 Responses

  • Roaidz December 8, 2012 on 6:14 am

    At least, dolphins aren’t humans, they don’t mind loosing their job.

  • robobello December 11, 2012 on 10:45 am

    I think moving human or animal out of harms way and automating the task is a fine use for robots. When lower cost is added to increased safety, it seems like a win-win all around. Lower cost, user friendly robotic designs are all around us these days. Robai’s Cyton robotic manipulators come to mind as an example.

  • David J. Hill December 12, 2012 on 7:35 am

    If you’d like to hear more from Federico about his book, you can check out this TEDxVienna talk he gave recently: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYIfeZcXA9U.

    Thanks to Vlad for the tip!