Chances are you'd never even realize they're robots.

By Andrea Romano
July 13, 2020
Robot dolphin by Edge Innovations with swimmer in water
Credit: Courtesy of Edge Innovations

While going to the aquarium is a great way to learn about sea creatures, some have raised concerns about the animals’ quality of life. But one company in New Zealand has a very unique solution.

Edge Innovations, a company in New Zealand, is working with some of Hollywood’s best animatronic effect creators to make robotic dolphins that will be nearly indistinguishable from real-life animals, The Guardian reported.

While a robot dolphin may seem a bit like something out of Black Mirror at first glance, the animatronic could be a good way for people to experience sea life while also cutting down on the amount of animals in captivity. This innovation, of course, also comes with a big price tag.

“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,” said Roger Holzberg, one of the California-based designers and former creative director at the Walt Disney Company, to 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.”

Dolphins, as well as other animals, often do not live as long in captivity as they would in the wild, according to The Guardian. Many animal advocates have called to stop putting animals in captivity.

One animatronic dolphin could cost an aquarium at least $40 million NZ ($26.3 million USD), The Guardian reported. But the robot would be controlled by human via remote and be able to interact with humans as a regular dolphin would. The price at the moment is about four times as expensive as a natural dolphin, but the entrepreneurs at Edge Innovations note that since the robots ultimately last longer than a real animal, the price will be worth the returns.

Red Star Macalline Group has considered implementing the dolphins into aquariums in China, according to The Guardian. The company would “adopt robotic dolphins and other [animals] in our new aquarium projects,” according to a statement. The dolphin prototype weighs 270 kilograms (just under 600 pounds) but is remarkably life-like. According to The Guardian, a test audience was actually not able to tell it apart from a real dolphin.

As for real aquarium visitors, especially younger ones, the developers predict that they won’t mind not seeing a “real” dolphin. “For people in New Zealand, for me, I liken authentic to natural,” said Li Wang, the business developer for Edge Innovations to The Guardian. “But if we think about the younger generation, they spend far more time than us playing electronic games online. We actually need to ask ourselves what is real and what is fake.”

The development of animatronic animals may be the future of zoos and aquariums, making it easier for animal lovers to enjoy nature in a humane way.