You don’t need to have seen documentaries like The Cove to feel uneasy about whales, sharks, and dolphins being held captive in tiny tanks at aquariums and theme parks. But instead of eliminating those experiences completely, which can help educate the public about these creatures, robots, like this self-contained swimming dolphin, could instead be the star attractions.
Theme parks like SeaWorld have always posed ethical concerns because, unlike zoos, the captive creatures are often trained and required to perform for visitors several times a day. And while zoos raise similar ethical concerns, there have been efforts to make outdoor exhibits larger so they can more closely resemble an animal’s natural habitat. Recreating the vast scale of the ocean just isn’t possible in a theme park where aquatic exhibits are competing for real estate with rides and other attractions.
But an idea that was first tested over 20 years ago might be the solution. At The Living Seas exhibit at Disneyworld’s Epcot center, which features a six million gallon aquarium, a robotic dolphin (also known as the Dolphin Robotic Unit, or DRU) would swim around the tank and interact with real divers and real sea life as part of a scripted performance for guests. It didn’t fool anyone until the robotic dolphin was used as part of an interactive experience at Castaway Cay, a private island Disney owns in the Bahamas used as a stop for its various cruise ships. Guests were able to get in the water and interact with the dolphin, and despite knowing it was a robot, the experience felt far more real given how close they were able to get to it.
Two decades of robotics innovation later, special effects technicians from San Francisco-based Edge Innovations, working with Walt Conti and Roger Holzberg, the former Creative Director/Vice-President at Walt Disney Imagineering, have designed and built a new robotic dolphin that moves and swims with an almost eery level of realism. Weighing in at a hefty 595 pounds, the robot has a battery life of about 10 hours, depending on its level of activity, and can survive in a saltwater environment for about 10 years, at which point new and improved models will presumably eventually replace it.
The robotic dolphin was designed to not only simulate the movements and appearance of an actual adolescent-aged bottlenose dolphin, but to feel like one too with a realistic skeletal and muscle structure underneath its outer skin, and accurate weight distribution that helps make its swimming motions look like the creative is actually alive. But it’s not. The one thing missing from the robot dolphin are cameras, sensors, and intelligence to make it autonomous. Its essentially a self-contained puppet, with its movements controlled by a nearby operator so that the dolphin appears to respond in real-time to commands, or interactions with people.
This upgraded robotic dolphin isn’t headed for a Disney theme park or resort, instead, it’s being developed and tested for a series of attractions at a new Chinese aquarium where the government has put a stop to the wildlife trade as part of its efforts to slow and eventually stop the spread of Covid-19. But even when the pandemic is eventually over, with robots that look and move as realistically as this dolphin does, there’s really no good reason to use live creatures in the popular ‘swim with dolphins’ experiences around the world. It doesn’t need to eat, it doesn’t require veterinary services, and aside from also being an ethical alternative to animals in captivity, the robot isn’t autonomous and doesn’t pose a potential safety risk to guests. The worst that could happen is its batteries die at which point you just tell kids it’s taking a nap.