As It Happens

These hyper-realistic robot dolphins could replace live animals at aquariums

Roger Holzberg is part of the team that developed a prototype for a hyper-realistic animatronic dolphin they hope will eventually replace live animals in aquariums and theme parks around the world. 

Designer Roger Holzberg says robots are ethical and cost-effective alternative to marine captivity

Roger Holzberg, a former creative director at the Walt Disney Co., hangs out with the robotic dolphin prototype he helped create for Edge Innovations. (Edge Innovations)

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The best part about swimming with a robotic dolphin is that it never gives you the cold shoulder, says Roger Holzberg.

Holzberg is part of the team that developed a prototype for a hyper-realistic animatronic dolphin they hope will eventually replace live animals in aquariums and theme parks around the world. 

"It's a lot of fun to swim with the robotic dolphin, because you can actually tell it what to do, and it'll look at you and respond to you," Holzberg, a former creative director for the Walt Disney Co., told As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal.

"As opposed to real dolphins, which tend to swim away when you get close to them."

The robo-dolphin was built by technicians at San Francisco-based Edge Innovations, in collaboration with Holzberg and Walt Conti, a longtime special effects artist whose CV includes Free Willy and Flipper.

Holzberg says the robot closely resembles a real dolphin, both inside and out.

It weights more than 270 kilograms, which is about the same as a real adolescent bottlenose dolphin. 

It even moves through the water in a way that most would find indiscernible from the real thing, Holzberg says, largely because of its detailed internal work. 

"Inside that robot is a skeleton where the major elements look very much like a real dolphin," Holzberg said. 

"The detail goes so far as to actually integrate fat bladders to be sure that the buoyancy and the feel of it when you actually touch it or move with it or bump against, it feels like its real life counterpart."

Children splash and play with Edge Innovations's new robot dolphin prototype. (Edge Innovations)

It's partially autonomous, and partially remote-controlled, depending on what you use it for. 

Left to its own devices, the robot dolphin will go through the motions of swimming, diving and coming up for air.

"But if it's up close and interacting with people — for safety reasons, but also for show design — it really wants to be able to be puppeted so that when an eight-year-old child says, 'Hi, can I share a dream that I have about dolphins in the ocean?' that dolphin can turn and look that child in the eye," Holzberg said.

Holzberg has, in fact, tested it in a pool with children and families. 

"The kids who have been in the water with these dolphins and shared their dreams with them or interacted with them, have — even though their parents told them they were going to be with robots — they didn't believe it," he said.

Changing opinions about marine life in captivity 

The robot dolphin is more than 20 years in the making, says Holzberg. Its earliest inception debuted in 1999 at the Living Seas exhibit at Disney World's Epcot. 

There wasn't a widespread use for it then, but as robotic technology has evolved, so has public opinion about the morals of keeping marine mammals in captivity.

A woman swims alongside a robotic dolphin created by Edge Innovations to replace live animals in aquariums. (Edge Innovations)

"A lot of films have been made behind the scenes that show some dark parts of that industry, and the profitability of that industry has diminished year by year for quite some time now," Holzberg said.

"However, the public's hunger to experience these animals is still just as strong as [ever] and the mission of many of these organizations to educate the public is just as strong."

That, he says, is how Edge Innovations found its first big customer, a Chinese company called Red Star Macalline Group, which plans to use the robot dolphins in future aquarium projects in shopping malls and other venues.

Holzberg says the cost estimate for "a set of primary, secondary and back-up dolphins" could be as high as $35 million Cdn.

But, he says, they will get cheaper to make over time and are cost-effective in the long run, as the robot dolphins don't require food, veterinary care or carefully calibrated water temperatures.

"We believe that there is a possible win-win for both the industry and for the educational initiatives to be able to create, really to reimagine, the kind of entertainment we do with those animals" Holzberg said.

"I've always thought that the way that we preserve our world oceans is to get people to fall in love with them. And my hope and my dream is that children who interact with these dolphins will fall in love with the ocean and the creatures that live with them and will grow up to preserve them."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

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