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Need To Track A Submarine? A Harbor Seal Can Show You How

Scientists find that the whiskers of harbor seals help them distinguish predator from prey — even from a distance.
Douglas Klug/Images
Scientists find that the whiskers of harbor seals help them distinguish predator from prey — even from a distance.

Using lessons learned from harbor seals and artificial intelligence, engineers in California may be on to a new way to track enemy submarines.

The idea started with research published in 2001 on the seals.

Scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany showed that blindfolded seals could still track a robotic fish. The researchers concluded that the seals did this by detecting the strength and direction of the whirling vortex the robot created as it swam through the water.

Subsequent research showed that the seal used its whiskers as sensors to detect the flow patterns.

Eva Kanso, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California, is interested in how animals use water flows to guide their behavior. It's an academic puzzle for Kanso, but a very real, very practical question for a harbor seal.

"The animal wants to understand — is it a prey that created this vortex, or is it a predator that created this flow pattern?" she says.

Kanso and her colleagues have been trying to emulate the seals' ability to make those distinctions.

At first, she tried to do this using the physics of flow patterns, but she didn't get very far — the physics is complex and computationally intense.

So she turned instead to artificial intelligence. Just like a computer can be trained to recognize an apple from a collection of pixels in an image, she and her colleagues have trained a computer to recognize various objects based on the flow patterns they create in the water.

For now, the computer program isn't all that smart. It can only sense fairly simple patterns. But Kanso expects it will get better.

And she acknowledges that the software could be used for more than understanding harbor seals' behavior.

She can imagine a day, she says, when the tool could be useful to submarine hunters, since submarines, too, can leave distinctive flow patterns.

It's probably not a coincidence that the Navy helps pay for Kanso's research.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.