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Panhandle Navy research may let mine hunting dolphins retire

4th April 2003


Associated Press Writer

Dolphins were deployed recently by the Navy to help find underwater mines that were blocking ships with humanitarian aid from reaching an Iraqi port - a dangerous mission that has sparked outrage from animal-rights activists. But relief is coming.

Military researchers are testing improved sonar and robotic systems that could hunt for mines. Despite ethical concerns raised by animal rights groups, the researchers' primary goal isn't protecting dolphins. They want to keep sailors and ships out of danger. Retiring the dolphins would be a bonus.

"Unfortunately, dolphins can't handle all of the mine warfare problems," said Delbert "Ace" Summey, head the Littoral Warfare Technology and Systems Department at the Naval Coastal Systems Station near this Florida Panhandle city. "We really want to get people and high-value platforms out of the minefield."

The systems being tested now in the Navy fleet could go into production in the next year or two, officials say. They include the Remote Minehunting System, a radio controlled unmanned mini-submarine. Further in the future are mine hunting machines that would be true robots, operating without direct human control.

Animal rights groups have opposed enlisting dolphins and other animals for war. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to complain about the Navy's use of dolphins in Iraq.

The dolphins used to help clear the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr are trained to avoid touching mines after finding them. Then it is up to mine hunting ships and aircraft or divers to neutralize the weapons.

Gunfire and explosives often are used. Another method is to set off the mines with devices pulled through the water by ships and helicopters. They may strike the mines or trigger them by mimicking the sound, magnetic signature or vibration of a ship. A final option is to simply determine where the mines are and avoid them.

Mine warfare is the main business of the Coastal Systems Station, part of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, but it also does research and development in areas ranging from hovercraft to devices used to find sailors who fall overboard. The station serves, too, as the Navy's center for diver training and research.

The biggest problem in combatting mines is finding them.

Sonar is a key tool. Dolphins use it to locate things in the water whether hunting for food, mines or other objects. They make noises and can tell where an object is by listening to the sound waves that echo back.

The Navy's sonar works the same way and does a good job of showing where an object is. The problem is determining what it is. Seas and harbors are filled with rocks, discarded refrigerators and other items that can look a lot like mines on sonar screens.

"The images are very difficult to read from a standpoint of trying to determine what is a target of interest and what is a piece of clutter," Summey said.

Researchers have sharpened those images with high-speed computer processing.

Summey said it is being tested in the fleet, but Cmdr. Bob Findley, the station's chief staff officer, declined to say if that or any other new development is being employed in the war against Iraq.

"I can tell you we are focusing attention on the theater," Findley said. "We are making available any systems that we have developed."

Existing mine hunting ships are equipped with unmanned mini-submarines that use sonar and television cameras to help find mines. They can drop a bomb on a mine or cut its mooring cable so it bobs to the surface. The sub, however, is tethered to the ship with a cable that limits its range.

The new remote system would eliminate the cable and could be deployed by virtually any warship, not just those designed specifically for mine hunting.

Robotic devices would be next, but researchers are trying to get them to work together and share information to accomplish their task more quickly and efficiently. For that, they are trying to borrow an idea from an old friend, the dolphin.

Summey said when a dolphin hunts for a fish it doesn't search in a narrow pattern like a lawn mower going back and forth across the grass. Instead it emits a broad pattern of energy to identify several areas of interest and then focuses its sonar on them to determine if any are fish.

"We've got to learn how to do that," Summey said, "and we've got to teach machines how to do that type of thing."