Skip to main content
Move the World.
robot dolphin

Lead Image Courtesy of Edge Innovations

Every year, people flock to marine parks and sanctuaries to see captive dolphins perform tricks and interact with trainers. Some even shell out to swim with the animals themselves.

This is all great news for the dolphins' owners — a single captive dolphin can generate up to $2 million in annual revenue — but it can be terrible for the dolphins, according to many wildlife experts.

"Most people love dolphins, but the cruelty of this industry is hidden from view," Julie Cappiello, Wildlife Campaign Manager for World Animal Protection, told TravelPulse. "If people truly knew the suffering these animals endure, they wouldn't support this industry."

Now, there's a realistic robot dolphin that could help end animal cruelty while still allowing people to enjoy the animals — or at least a machine that looks and acts like them.

A Realistic Robot Dolphin

The robot dolphin is the work of Edge Innovations, an engineering company that has been building realistic animatronics for filmmakers and theme parks for decades.

Willy from "Free Willy"? Flipper from "Flipper"? Dr. Evil's sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads? All Edge creations.

The company started developing its robot dolphin more than 20 years ago as part of a project with Disney, Roger Holzberg, creative director for Edge's animatronics program, told SYFY in August.

The current version of the robot is 8.5 feet long, weighs nearly 600 pounds, and is covered in a silicon skin. It can be controlled via a remote, but is also semi-autonomous.

"(The dolphin) has enough AI to be able to do a shallow dive, remain appropriately buoyant, return to the surface, lift its blowhole to simulate taking a breath, and also to be able to realistically complete turns," Holzberg said.

The robot dolphin looks and acts so much like a real dolphin that it has already reportedly fooled a test audience.

The Marine Park of the Future

The starting cost of Edge's first robot dolphin is $3 million to $5 million, and the company is still waiting to see if marine parks will buy into the tech — as of August, it was in talks with companies in China and South America, but the pandemic has forced it to push pause on several projects.

However, there is precedent for lifelike but artificial animals capturing the public's attention — at the Circus Roncalli, audiences can see holographic elephants, and visitors to Times Square can step inside the mouth of a virtual whale at National Geographic's Ocean Odyssey encounter.

"It's time to reimagine this industry."

Roger Holzberg

The upfront cost of buying a robot dolphin might also be offset by lower maintenance costs — the robot would reportedly have a longer lifespan than a real dolphin, plus it wouldn't need food or medical care.

"The marine park industry has had falling revenues for over a decade due to ethical concerns and the cost of live animals, yet the public hunger to learn about and experience these animals is still as strong as ever," Holzberg told the Guardian.

"We believe that it's time to reimagine this industry and that this approach can be more humane, and more profitable at the same time," he added.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Future of Entertainment
Mind-Blowing Holograms Are Replacing Circus Animals
holographic circus animals
Future of Entertainment
Mind-Blowing Holograms Are Replacing Circus Animals
With pressure to eliminate circus animals, one show gets creative with holograms.

With pressure to eliminate circus animals, one show gets creative with holograms.

Innovation
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
Watch Now
Innovation
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
18 billion pounds of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year. This microbrewery created biodegradable six pack rings to help stem the tide.
Watch Now

Saltwater Brewery was a regular microbrewery that made great craft beer - packaged with the usual plastic six pack rings. As fishermen who saw firsthand the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, though, they felt they needed to make a change to help marine animals. They came up with the idea to create edible six pack rings made of biodegradable materials left over from the brewing process. Now, they’ve created a new...

Animals
Tracking Animals From the International Space Station
tracking animals
Animals
Tracking Animals From the International Space Station
The ICARUS project looks to use the International Space Station and special bio-loggers to begin tracking animals from space.

The ICARUS project looks to use the International Space Station and special bio-loggers to begin tracking animals from space.

Innovation
Giving Animals New Legs
Giving Animals New Legs
Watch Now
Innovation
Giving Animals New Legs
Derrick Campana is a prosthetics engineer helping animals walk again with artificial limbs.
Watch Now

Derrick Campana isn’t your typical... anything. He’s a prosthetics engineer helping animals walk again - or walk for the first time - with artificial limbs. In the old days when an animal had a broken leg, they would often be euthanized--and only if they were very lucky would they wind up with a leg cast. Derrick Campana wants to put those days in the past. He’s creating prosthetics and casts for all manner of...

The Exotic Zoo Run by Prisoners
The Exotic Zoo Run by Prisoners
Watch Now
The Exotic Zoo Run by Prisoners
Could zookeeping turn an inmate’s life around? Jeanne Selander who runs the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm thinks so.
Watch Now

“People need to be cared for in order to keep them from corroding,” says Jeanne Selander, who helps run the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm. The farm functions as an zoo for exotic animals. But this isn’t a normal zoo. It’s staffed entirely by convicted felons. Selander has seen the experience transform the inmates. The work gives them purpose and being around animals seems to have a calming effect. Since she...

Animals
Crowdsourcing Ideas for Animal Conservation Technology
animal conservation
Animals
Crowdsourcing Ideas for Animal Conservation Technology
The Digital Makerspace looks to an online community of thinkers to identify the most crucial animal conservation problems and solutions.

The Digital Makerspace looks to an online community of thinkers to identify the most crucial animal conservation problems and solutions.

Dispatches
AI Could Replace Chemical Testing on Animals
AI Could Replace Chemical Testing on Animals
Dispatches
AI Could Replace Chemical Testing on Animals
Scientists have developed software that could save one billion dollars (and two million animals) each year.
By Thomas Hartung

Scientists have developed software that could save one billion dollars (and two million animals) each year.

Medical Innovation
Human-Like "Organ Chips" Could Eliminate Animal Studies
organ chips
Medical Innovation
Human-Like "Organ Chips" Could Eliminate Animal Studies
To rapidly test for COVID-19 treatments without animal studies, researchers make a model human body out of “organ chips.”

To rapidly test for COVID-19 treatments without animal studies, researchers make a model human body out of “organ chips.”

Future Forward
Exploring the Ocean Floor with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles
AUV
Future Forward
Exploring the Ocean Floor with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles
Efficient, autonomous, and economical, the AUV is quickly becoming essential for underwater research.

Efficient, autonomous, and economical, the AUV is quickly becoming essential for underwater research.