Life-Like Robotic Dolphin to Overhaul Marine Captivity Industry

The robotic dolphin is so life-like that the volunteers who swam with it were shocked to learn it wasn't real.
Derya Ozdemir

Whether zoos and aquariums are ethical or not is a slippery matter. While they provide educational opportunities, this classroom environment is provided by trapping creatures who normally have whole oceans to roam to environments the size of swimming pools.

Melanie Langlotz, who has been long bothered by the idea of animal captivity, has helped build a life-sized robot dolphin that looks and swims just like a real bottlenose and can react to human gestures, and now, her project is seeing unexpected attention as Chinese zoo and aquariums face new bans on wildlife trade.

Her robotic dolphin may be what struggling Chinese businesses need to overcome this financial crisis, and it also provides a mindful way of experiencing wildlife without captivating animals. 


Where it all started

The project started a year ago when the New Zealand tech entrepreneur and her business partner Li Wang were asked to design an aquarium in China with live dolphins and whales. Using live animals didn't sit well with them, and they decided to use robotic dolphins instead.

Life-Like Robotic Dolphin to Overhaul Marine Captivity Industry
Source: RNZ

However, that wasn't an easy feat. Langlotz explained, "I started talking to anyone I could get my hands on who has ever had anything to do with animatronics. I was pretty much told that, 'this is too hard', 'it's really difficult', 'it's a real piece of engineering artwork' because they would be in saltwater, there are lots of electronics in there, let alone that they need to be on display for a long time. I couldn't find anyone." RNZ reports.

Makers of robotic animals in Jurassic World and more

This is where Roger Holzberg and Walt Conti, two animatronics experts in San Francisco, join the story. This duo, who helped make robotic animals for movies like Star Trek, Jurassic World, and more, designed the 270 kg prototype, and it was ready to dive into the swimming pool earlier this year.

According to Holzberg, the robotic dolphin has a battery life of 10 hours and lasts in saltwater for 10 years. "This dolphin weighs, feels, and has been engineered to simulate everything from the skeletal structure, to the muscular interaction with that skeletal structure, to the fat bladders and weight deposits on a real adolescent bottlenose dolphin." he says, RNZ reports.

Apparently, the dolphin is so life-like that volunteers who have been swimming with the prototype believed it was real until they were told the truth.

Changing the marine captivity industry

Now, on the road to change the whole marine captivity industry, the team is now trying to mass-produce the dolphins and advance it even further by adding a functional blowhole. They've been approached by the operators of the theme parks in China, and it seems like the project will get bigger and bigger. 

Life-Like Robotic Dolphin to Overhaul Marine Captivity Industry
Source: RNZ

They want to replicate other sea creatures that are bound in captivity in aquariums, and hopefully, their project will change the whole industry into something better.

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