There’s been debate over the ethical concerns of marine life captivity at theme parks and aquariums. For example, the treatment of dolphins and how they are used for both education and entertainment. It helps guests to see these creatures up close for learning purposes, but the enclosure size of aquariums and trained entertainment behaviors concern some individuals. However, an idea that was first conceived by former Disney Imagineers over 20 years ago might be the solution for our future.
The Living Seas exhibit at Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park features a six million gallon aquarium. Twenty years ago, a robotic dolphin known as the Dolphin Robotic Unit, or DRU, would swim around the tank and interact with real divers and real sea life. The scripted performance didn’t fool anyone until DRU was used as part of an interactive experience at Disney’s Castaway Cay. Guests were able to get in the water and interact with the robotic dolphin in a way that simulated a true dolphin encounter. The former Disney Imagineers did improve upon their robotic dolphin in the years since then.
The robotic dolphin was designed to not only simulate the movements and appearance of an actual adolescent-aged bottlenose dolphin, but to feel like one too with a realistic skeletal and muscle structure underneath its outer skin, and accurate weight distribution that helps make its swimming motions look like the creative is actually alive. The robotic dolphin operates as a self-contained puppet with its movements controlled by a nearby operator.
At this time, the upgraded robotic dolphin isn’t heading to a Disney theme park or resort. Instead, the technology is being developed and tested for a series of attractions at a new Chinese aquarium. Who knows? If it tests well with the public, we may see the former Disney Imagineer’s robotic dolphin come to our aquariums in the states!