Blending live puppeteering, programmed behaviour, and artificial intelligence, Edge Innovations – which has created numerous animatronic marine mammals for Hollywood blockbusters – believes its hyper real sea creatures offer the opportunity to reimagine aquaria. This technology could make captive orcas, sharks and dolphins a thing of the past, instead offering interactive experiences with robotic cetaceans. Edge CEO, Walt Conti, talks us through the challenges in creating these lifelike robots and the potential they offer.
What inspired the idea for the animatronic dolphins?
The technology which enabled the creation of the dolphin sprung from Edge Innovations’ work in the film industry in the 1990s, creating the world’s first free-swimming, full size animatronic marine mammals. Prior to that, films such as Jaws were filmed with partial sections of an animatronic shark, rigged to big platforms and filmed from specific angles, such as one side or the front.
For Free Willy, Edge created completely self-contained orcas which could be filmed from any angle. Edge went on to create many aquatic animatronics for films such as Flipper, Deep Blue Sea, The Perfect Storm and The Aquatic.
In 2000, Roger Holzberg, a VP at Disney Imagineering and currently head of experience design at Edge, came up with a concept for an attraction that would feature this technology. We collaborated on two pilot attractions with Disney using version 1.0 of the dolphin: one for Epcot and one for Castaway Cay, Disney’s cruise ship island in the Bahamas. Disney did not proceed with the attraction at the time, but the pilots were a huge hit with guests and tested off the charts, showing the potential for the concept.
This current initiative was born from the realisation that there has been building resistance over the last decade against keeping these types of marine mammals – dolphins, orcas, belugas – in captivity. In addition, there has been a convergence of key technologies which makes this vision financially and experientially viable on a large and worldwide basis. We are able to take advantage of the billions of dollars now being spent in the development of the electric vehicle battery systems and autonomous sensors and AI. These industries have driven down the cost of these key elements which are integral to our creations.
What specific features and characteristics did you want to achieve?
Our goal was pretty simple. We wanted to create real-time animatronics which were so realistic in appearance and movement that even up close people would interact with these creations as if they were alive. Once you have achieved that level of suspension of disbelief in guests then it opens up the opportunity for all sorts of engaging, entertaining and educational experiences.
How did you go about making this vision a reality?
The success of these animatronics relies on an obsessive attention to detail. We base the animals on actual skeleton information and build out from there. Having that foundation ensures animals will move in the right way.
What were the main challenges?
It’s extremely challenging to package all the technology – motors, electronics, batteries and skin systems in a way that fits inside an accurate form of a dolphin. One can’t just use off the shelf industrial components since they are typically not optimised for size. Therefore every sub-system has to be custom designed. Getting the skin to behave in a natural way is also very challenging and requires multiple rounds of prototyping and testing. Finally, achieving the right buoyancy control and stability while swimming is especially difficult. From a physics and engineering point of view one gains an incredible appreciation for mother nature when trying to recreate an animal like the dolphin. All in all the development of the V1.0 dolphin took over two years.
What has been the response from consumers?
Without exception we have observed a complete suspension of disbelief in guests, both children and adults. Even when told these are robots, they end up petting the dolphins or trying to kiss them. There is some kind of magic which transcends all mechanical and silicone elements which ends up creating a powerful engagement with guests.
Have any attractions committed to buying one yet?
We’re in advanced talks with our Chinese clients to populate three new large aquaria in China. COVID-19 slowed some of the progress this year – we were all set to implement a pilot attraction at a large aquarium in California just before the shut down, which will be restarted once attendance has recovered.
Is it viable for attractions to invest in robots rather than having live animals?
Yes. It has become more and more challenging to operate attractions based on keeping large marine mammals in captivity. Theres a growing awareness that the negative aspects of keeping these animals in these environments has affected profitability.
Yet the public hunger to learn about and experience these animals is still as strong as ever. We believe that we can provide an alternative way to create experiences which are just as powerful, entertaining and educational. From a cost standpoint, over a 10 year timeframe this technology is more cost-effective than keeping live animals.
Beyond the ethical aspect, what other advantages do the animatronics have?
Marine parks have operated under the premise that the most engaging experiences with these animals is to have them do acrobatic stunts. We can replicate those experiences, but there are so many other experiences which can be delivered, such as a toddler dream time with a dolphin, snorkelling among great white sharks, or bringing the Jurassic Seas to life.
What’s next for you?
We’re currently in development on the next generation – V3.0 – which will incorporate more AI, allowing both an ‘exhibit’ natural behaviour mode and a ‘real time’ puppeteered mode for recurring shows.
Will you replicate any other mammals?
The beauty of this technology is that you can replicate any marine mammal. It creates an opportunity to experience the wonders of the ocean world through a much broader range of the incredible animals which inhabit it.