Former Imagineers create robotic dolphin that could replace those in aquariums

Walt Conti and Roger Holzberg, former creative director and vice president for Walt Disney Imagineering — together with the team at special effects company Edge Innovations — have created a robotic dolphin that could potentially replace the real thing in aquariums and theme parks.

robotic dolphin
Photos courtesy of Blooloop

According to Blooloop, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, China has implemented strict limitations on the import and export of wild animals. With Edge Innovations’ robotic dolphin, China could replace the living creatures in their tanks and avoid the bans altogether.

The dolphin weighs 595 pounds, has a battery life that lasts 10 hours, and it can survive in a saltwater environment for about 10 years. It was designed to simulate the movements and appearance of an adolescent bottlenose dolphin, and has a realistic skeletal and muscle structure to imitate the real thing.

Unfortunately, it is more like a high-tech puppet than an autonomous creature, as it has to be controlled by a nearby operator responding to commands and interactions in real time. The dolphin has no cameras, sensors, or other intelligent aspects to make it come to life on its own.

According to Gizmodo, the dolphin is being tested for attractions at a new aquarium in China.

DRU - Dolphin Robotic Unit

Believe it or not, this tech was first tested over 20 years ago at Walt Disney World’s Epcot, in what was known as The Living Seas (now The Seas with Nemo & Friends). The robotic dolphin, then known as the Dolphin Robotic Unit (DRU), could swim around the tank and interact with real divers as part of a scripted offering for guests.

The DRU was later moved to be part of an interactive experience at Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay. Guests had the opportunity to get in the water and actually interact with the dolphin, offering an up-close experience that felt just as real as the creature looked.

Li Wang, co-founder of Animatronic Entertainment Portfolio, was the one who reached out to Conti and Holzberg to help build the robotic marine animal, and hopes that demand from the Chinese market would garner up to 150 orders over the next three years.

robotic dolphin

“In terms of a 10-year business operating period and a 2 million annual visitor capacity, the overall investment and maintenance costs for a decent animatronics entertainment portfolio only accounts for about one quarter or no more than one-third of what a traditional aquarium spends,” said Wang to the South China Morning Post.

With these animatronic animals, not only could their presence help those in captivity, but they’re cost-efficient, too! They never have to eat, they don’t require veterinary aid, and they don’t pose any safety threat to guests since they’re essentially puppets and not autonomous in any way.

What do you think? Is a robotic dolphin more ethical for aquariums than the real thing? Or is there no replacing a living, breathing creature? Let us know in the comments below.


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  1. That sounds pretty cool!

    Walt Disney Imagineering should make some audio-animatronic dolphins for Disney Parks and resorts for some ocean-themed attractions and shows along with some audio-animatronic figures orcas, beluga whales, polar bears, sea lions, sharks, and other sea creatures!