The tech team behind a strikingly lifelike animatronic dolphin is hoping the robot will transform marine parks forever, and there's some Kiwi ingenuity behind the idea.
When Auckland-based GEO AR Games chief executive Melanie Langlotz was approached to help design an aquarium in China, there was one major hurdle.
“We learned they were going to have beluga whales and whale sharks and a dolphin show," she says.
"Some of the vendors we’d brought on board…started to jump off and say, ‘We’re not comfortable.' We said we either walk away or we find a solution and we are the change agent.”
She says she was told budget wasn’t an issue, and the idea of a robot dolphin came about.
While researching the idea, Langlotz came across a video of a dolphin prototype from the 1990s in America, created by former Disney executive Roger Holzberg.
Edge Innovations, the US tech company behind Free Willy, got on board to modernise the prototype. Langlotz works on the business development.
“One of the client criteria was the dolphin had to look so realistic that it would fool people in the street that it was a real dolphin, and it did,” Langlotz says.
There’s only one dolphin so far, an eight-foot-long, 250kg creature controlled by remote and covered with ‘skin’ made from medical grade silicone.
It’s currently the star of an educational pilot programme in California, but the creators hope to make many more, and believe they could eventually replace captive mammals in aquariums and marine parks all over the world.
"There are like 3000 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.
Langlotz says with China cracking down on the live animal trade due to Covid-19, there’s “a lot” of interest there, and from other countries like Brazil.
“They now have trouble to get interesting animals for display, and we have the solution for them,” she says.
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, whose team worked with marine biologists to study the physiology of dolphins so that they could best replicate the animal's movements.
Such a move has other incentives as well, says Roger Holzberg, creative director for Edge's animatronic program.
"The difference is you don't have to do animal husbandry. You don't have to have breeding programmes. You don't have to worry about the safety with human beings," Holzberg says.
Including research and development, the prototype cost around $40 million to make, but Langlotz says the price will come down with larger orders.
“It’s like if you were buying a Tesla, and even that doesn’t quite compare in terms of price,” Langlotz says.
“We don’t want to say here’s one dolphin. We want to develop an entire show that solves their problems in education with the visitors."