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SYFY WIRE Robotics

Robot dolphins are here to Free Willy and revolutionize marine theme parks

By Adam Pockross
Edge Innovations Robot Dolphin

Edge Innovations is a company that truly lives up to its name. As such, it's made an animatronic dolphin so real, the company already has high hopes of replacing actual marine life held in captivity and performing at theme park shows. Yes, we're talking about dolphin robots taking over the (Sea)world!

The San Francisco-based company, which also creates creatures, submersibles, and effects for Hollywood, subsea, and tech industries, was founded in 1991 by veteran special effects artist and Academy Award nominee (for The Perfect Storm) Walt Conti. With plenty of help along the way from Roger Holzberg, the former creative director/vice president at Walt Disney Imagineering, Edge has created nearly 100 highly specialized, unique technology-based systems (including helping to design and build James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger, which, in record-setting fashion, he piloted to the deepest place in the ocean). Now Edge has big plans to change the future of aquariums as we know it, not just with its recent 2.0 version of the aforementioned robo-dolphin, but with sharks, whales, and more already in development.

“The goal of this initiative is to reimagine the entertainment, educational, and business potential of the marine animal industry. Real-time animatronics are hyper-real creatures capable of delivering any experience you can imagine,” Holzberg explains to SYFY WIRE in an email. “From dolphins sharing their dreams with your children, to great white sharks inviting you to be a part of their feeding frenzy, to sea dragons breathing fire in a nighttime fountain show. Safe, up close, personal engagement with the creatures of our world ocean is finally possible.” 

Like other real-world, future-leaning tech, the seeds for Edge began with Star Trek, when Conti took on a project at Industrial Light & Magic creating the whales for Star Trek IV

“At that time, Leonard Nimoy (who was directing) had fallen in love with the idea of going back in time to bring humpback whales to the future (where they had become extinct),” Conti tells SYFY WIRE, also via email. But they couldn’t find existing footage to repurpose or the means to shoot new footage properly. They were also disappointed with screen tests of whale models shot dry for wet (on a smoke-filled stage). “They really were at a stopping point, when ILM art director Nilo Rodis proposed that I come in and try to create the whales for real. Miniatures that could swim underwater and be completely convincing. Without his foresight to attempt this 'crazy idea,' they would never have come to fruition. Luckily through a series of mockups and tests, we were able to pull this off.”

Soon James Cameron came calling for his Aliens follow-up, 1989’s The Abyss. Back then, practical effects ruled the day, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone as masterful as Cameron at mixing in-camera techniques like rear/front projection and different scale models.

“And The Abyss was a prime example. The film utilized a full spectrum of full-size underwater sets and mockups as well as a large number of scale models. We were asked to create 1/4-scale models of the two submersibles Flatbed and Cab. The film utilized full-size subs, our 1/4-scale underwater R/C models, and 1/8-scale dry for wet models,” Conti recalls. “Our models were intended for all the [underwater] shots that had a lot of contact and action (hitting each other, bouncing off the seafloor, etc.), which you couldn’t do with the full-size subs or the dry for wet models.”

But on a truncated time budget, these things didn’t just have to look good, they had to be “little hot rods,” too, “because footage was shot at higher speed so that the models looked more massive when slowed down — but they needed to sustain chase sequences and so they had to be incredibly fast to pull that off,” Conti says. “So we had to design custom motors to get that amount of power out of the small thrusters. On top of that, Jim insisted that the surroundings be lit by the actual models as if they were in the darkness of the depths. So the models had a ton of onboard lighting — something like 10 kilowatts.”

After making ”the impossible look easy,” as Cameron is quoted as saying on the company’s website, Conti tells us he founded Edge Innovations in 1991 “to bring cutting edge robotic technology to filmed effects.”

The company’s first big project was creating “full-size, self-contained, free-swimming” orca models for Free Willy, the 1993 film about a kid who frees the eponymous killer whale who’s set to be euthanized by the owners of his aquarium home.

From there, the company worked on dozens of '90s favorites, including creating the snake (and lighting it on fire) in 1997’s Anaconda. As CGI came into its own, Edge segued more into theme park work — “including the Amino Avatar figure in Pandora at Disney’s animal kingdom, and most recently a huge iRex figure for the Jurassic World ride in Hollywood.”

Edge Innovations Robot Dolphin

As far as the dolphin itself, Version 1.0 was Holzberg’s creation and featured at Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay.

“Version 1.0 of the dolphin, the one featured in the pilot with Disney, was run entirely by two animators,” Holzberg says of the creature’s evolution. “Version 2.0 of the dolphin, the one featured in the more recent pilot video [see above], has enough AI to be able to do a shallow dive, remain appropriately buoyant, return to the surface, lift its blowhole to simulate taking a breath, and also to be able to realistically complete turns.

"Any up-close animation, though, is the work of human animators taking over the work of controlling the dolphin’s movements from the AI, similar to piloting a drone. This experience and talent of these animators makes the performance of the dolphin intimate, real, and safe,” Holzberg says. “Our real-time animatronic animals can do anything that their real-life counterparts can do.” 

But there’s still more work to be done. 

"Version 3.0 (in development) will have an 'Exhibit Mode' that will enable it to behave realistically like a swimming and breathing dolphin, then the controls will override the AI to enable the dolphin to perform in the educational and entertainment shows on regular intervals. This version will have a 10-hour battery life and a 10-year life cycle," Holzberg explains.

The entire experience is meant to create an impression so real as to be indelible.

“The personalized, real-time experience is what differs this from any film or theme park experience which is fixed and permanent,” Holzberg says. “When a child is less than two feet from a dolphin and asks their new friend if she's afraid of sharks too, and the dolphin looks that child in the eyes and slowly nods yes, you have created a memory for life.”

Edge Innovations Robot Dolphin

Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Edge has had to push pause on its major Chinese aquarium project, which made it past a proof-of-concept pilot. Eventually, Holzberg says the hope is to have several aquariums with robotic animals much bigger than dolphins, like never-before-seen sharks and whales. They’re also in preliminary discussions with several other Chinese companies, as well as companies in South America. 

Edge also had to delay a long pilot program that would have been up and running already at an as-yet-unannounced major U.S. aquarium. The educational program for children centers around the (current) dolphin, and was already conceived and approved by the aquarium board. “[It] will hopefully proceed once aquariums and theme parks reopen in the U.S.,” Holzberg says. 

Indeed, there’s much to be hopeful for, as Holzberg can see all sorts of promising developments in the future, including “Jurassic swimmers,” “fantasy creatures that burst through water curtains and spit fire,” and, perhaps most importantly, “baby creatures for kids at resorts to play and learn with.”

And just why is that so important?  

As Holzberg reminds us, “In the IMAX movie The Living Sea,  the narrator says, ‘We cannot hurt what we grow to love.’”