At a cost of roughly £20 million per 'animal', Chinese aquariums could soon be replacing real dolphins with lifelike robotic versions.
The robot dolphins - which can swim, respond to questions and withstand contact that would usually be harmful to real animals - are intended to remove some of the ethical problems associated with keeping real dolphins in captivity.
Developed by entrepreneurs in New Zealand and American creators of some of Hollywood's most famous animals, the dolphins may soon be rolled out in Chinese aquariums.
Identical to real dolphins
The creators say that the dolphins are the perfect answer to falling revenues in marine parks, which have been under growing pressure to remove whale and dolphin exhibits due to ethical concerns.
Roger Holzberg, a California-based designer of the life-size dolphins, told The Guardian, “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".
Holzberg is working alongside Walt Conti, who was involved in the creation of famous Hollywood creatures like Flipper and Free Willy, to build the dolphins.
The dolphins are reported to be incredibly lifelike, though able to do things that real dolphins couldn't do - such as nod an answer to a child's question, thanks to a remote control.
Melanie Langlotz, one of the entrepreneurs behind the dolphins, told The Guardian that the prototype weighs more than 270kg and is very difficult to tell apart from a real dolphin. A test audience were reportedly unable to identify that the robot was not real.
£20.8 million per dolphin
The biggest obstacle for the creators of the robotic dolphins will be persuading buyers that the £20.8 million price tag (per dolphin) is worth the cost.
Li Wang, business developer for Edge Innovation - the New Zealand-based company involved in the project - told The Guardian that while they cost four times the price of a real dolphin, they will last much longer.
Animal rights activists have reportedly welcomed the innovation. In a statement, Elisa Allen – the UK director for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – said that she hopes the dolphins “will replace real ones in marine parks worldwide”.