Robot dolphins could save the 3000 real ones living in captivity

The company behind animatronics used for Hollywood blockbusters like Free Willy, Deep Blue Sea and The Abyss has created a robot dolphin that looks and acts like a real dolphin.

Design and engineering company Edge Innovations hopes its technology will transform marine parks by providing an alternative to live animals captured, bred, trained, and held in captivity.

“There are like 3,000 dolphins currently in captivity being used to generate several billions of dollars just for dolphin experiences. And so there’s obviously an appetite to love and learn about dolphins. And so we want to use that appetite and offer kind of different ways to fall in love with the dolphin,” says Edge Innovations founder and CEO Walt Conti.

“An easy way to think about it is if your normal day consists of swimming 100 miles (160 kilometers) in the ocean and now you’re swimming 75 feet (22 meters), and that’s your entire existence, it’s just such an unnatural environment,” Conti says about holding animals captive in tanks at marine parks.

“And you can dress it (the tank) up. You can make it look blue and ocean-like. But it’s a fact that a dolphin is a social roaming animal. And then he is constrained within basically a bathtub. And so I think it’s a psychological, physiological, you know, impact, really,” Conti continues.

This summer, it was reported that Edge’s animatronic hyper-realistic dolphins would find a home in marine parks currently being built in China. They’ll use the robot dolphins instead of living captured dolphins. It’s an area where the company sees huge potential.

A move to animatronics, including beyond traditional dolphin acrobatic shows, may be enough to bring back audiences turned off by parks using lives animals, says Conti. His team worked with marine biologists to study the physiology of dolphins so that they could best replicate the animal’s movements.

During previous demonstrations, kids and adults could hardly tell their dolphin was a robot and not real. Beyond dolphins, Edge wants to create Great White Sharks or even creatures from the Jurassic period for marine and theme parks.

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