US Navy Sea Mammal Program

Trainers with the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program prepare the dolphin Constellation for a training event off the coast of the Florida Keys. (U.S. Navy Photo by Trice Denny/Released)

In the underwater battle between sea lion and robot, never count out four furious fighting flippers.

One day this month, a trained sea lion flopped into the waters of Naval Base San Diego — a pier away from the amphibious warship Essex and the cruiser Cape St. George — and zipped toward a long, elegant barracuda-like robot slipping in and out of the waves.

It’s hard for some electronic sensors to detect gliders, a subclass of what the  calls autonomous underwater vehicles — or “AUVs.” The lap of water against concrete wharves, the rumble of truck engines on the dock, the clanging of mallets aboard destroyers being mended, even the scuttle of tug boats across San Diego Bay make a lot of noise.

But the morning test proved that California sea lions aren’t fooled. Within moments the creature had hunted down the robot to attach a beacon that snapped like a steel trap around the glider’s guts, making it easy for patrol boats to locate and destroy it.

That’s because sea lions boast good hearing above and below the ocean surface, even when their valvular ears slam shut to seal out water. They’ll also use hair-trigger vibrissae, their distinctive whiskers, to sense prey in the blackest of brine.

And they swim four to five times faster than Olympic champion Michael Phelps.

“Actually, there is a long history of using our friends at sea for these kind of roles, so I’m not dubious,” said P.W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America. “Dolphins have been used in mine hunting in the Iraq war and even anti-enemy swimmer roles in Vietnam. And the reality is that for the time being, animals have superior agility and even sensors than most robotic systems.”

The trend over the past century has been to swap  animals with machines, which is why the horse gave way to the tank and homing piegoens gave way to radios. But engineers see animals and machines as “systems.”

“Same capabilities, different sensor suite,” said Steven Murphy, an  veteran who now works as a program director for the Physical Security Enterprise & Analysis Group, which staged a demonstration this month. “Marine mammals like sea lions have excellent underwater vision in very dim conditions and dolphins have excellent sonar capabilities. And so we’ve mimicked some of that with hardware in our systems, with sonar capabilities and low-light cameras and other things.”

But there have been some issues.

Housed at the Spanish Landing facility of Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command or SPAWAR, the   Mammal Program has come under fire from animal welfare groups who fear the animals are confined to small pens, get little exercise and are mistreated, especially as they age and can’t perform many missions — allegations the  has denied.

Officials told The San Diego Union-Tribune that they run bottlenose dolphin and sea lion patrols in Georgia’s Kings Bay and along the coast of Bangor, Washington — home to major submarine bases — searching for frogmen, mines and spy robots, but critics have long argued the Cold War era program doesn’t work very well and is expensive, especially transportation costs and veterinary care.

In 2015, the  and contractor Science Applications International Corp. inked a $59 million deal, with options that could extend it out for several years.

Enter robots, which never call in sick or need a fish reward for finding a drone.

The Center for the Study of the Drone at New York’s Bard College estimates that the  planned to spend about $325.9 million on underwater robots in the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30. They’re designed to gather info on the weather and sea state, hunt and defeat mines, plus spy on enemy vessels and installations.

General Dynamics Mission Systems’ robotics line includes both AUVs and “UUVs” — Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, including the smaller Bluefin products and the larger sea bomb-killing Knifefish program, which is designed to be launched from the littoral combat ship, the proposed replacement for the  Avenger-class minesweepers.

Like the sea mammal initiative, Knifefish has been dogged by controversy. A Nov. 8 audit by the  Inspector General found that the  had bungled coordination between the Knifefish and LCS programs, hiking costs by $2.3 million.

Federal funding delays initially put the $842.5 million program back 14 months and attempts to fix it might have compromised effective testing of the device, with concerns it might not perform its most basic tasks by its planned rollout date in late 2017, the audit determined.

SPAWAR’s scientists and industry researchers keep pushing the edge of technology, however, which is why the crowd that gathered for the second demonstration — featuring machine versus machine — was so excited to see Advanced Research, Inc.’s WAM-V.

Think of it as the world’s smallest aircraft carrier, with a catamaran hull, a landing pad and a quadcopter drone that flits above the waves like a gangly hummingbird.

When a suspicious object is detected, the flattop motors out to the target and then deploys the micro-chopper, which follows the thing in the water until someone determines that it’s harmless or a patrol boat speeds out to intercept it.

The secret: The watercraft and the quadcopter are often running themselves. They’re autonomous.

“There’s no human guiding that in,” Murphy said.

To retrieve the quadcopter, the catamaran craft sends a Global Positioning Signal to the drone, which then locks on the landing pad with its camera, automatically adjusting itself as it hovers closer to the platform. At its worst, it’s only less than 4 inches off.

And it’s 2 1/2 times as fast as Phelps.

“Totally off the leash,” Murphy said. “We can manually take control of it if we need to, but in this case the launch and recovery on the platform itself is all automated. There’s no human intervention in that.”

A research team is developing a similar system that will halve the number of humans necessary to run the system — to one.

“The surface platform has enough intelligence on it that we don’t need that operator,” said Fred Gaghan, a retired  explosive ordnance disposal  brought on the WAM-V program to give expert advice to scientists.

“What we’re trying to do is increase the standoff capabilities so we can get divers out of harm’s way,” the former captain said. “Traditionally, it’s done by divers in a little rubber boat. They have to dive off of it or we put a remotely-operative vehicle on it, but they’re still in the hazard area.”

There’s also a lot of wasted time. Divers not only spend hours searching for what often turns out to be a bag of trash — if they even find it — but harbor officials have to shut down operations in the area they’re searching.

Gaghan has spent time with both the sea lions and the robots. He used to be the second-in-command of the  unit that ran the mammal program.

So, what about those old  and  Corps rumors about frogmen-slaying dolphins trained by the ?

Sort of true.

“Not kill, but we used to do training where, basically, we wore motocross vests. You know the hard plastic vests? They’d bump you,” said Gaghan.

cprine@sduniontribune.com

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