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Technology

Dolphin design fulfils lifelong dream

By Julie Clothier for CNN

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The Bionic Dolphin in action
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start quoteOnce you get over the initial human condition of having water flowing over the top of you, it's just amazing to still be dry and zip across the waterend quote
-- Thomas "Doc" Rowe, Bionic Dolphin inventor
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(CNN) -- When Thomas "Doc" Rowe told people almost 30 years ago that he wanted to build a bionic dolphin, people thought he was crazy.

The young surfer dreamed of sitting in a mechanical capsule that would move in and out of waves just as a dolphin does.

Now 52, Doc has dedicated most of his life to building the machines.

The concept recently made waves -- literally -- around the world when one of the bionic dolphins, built by Doc's protégé Rob Innes, appeared at a New Zealand expo named "Big Boys' Toys."

The dolphin, described by Doc as the world's first underwater flying machine, attracted a huge amount of media interest during a test drive around Auckland harbor, in New Zealand.

It has also appeared in the Austin Powers' film "Goldmember."

Since then, Doc has been inundated with queries from people around the globe wanting to share the dolphin dream.

The Californian, who still surfs when he gets the chance, told CNN that the road to fulfilling his dream had been a challenging one -- at one stage he even sold his beloved surfboard to help fund the original prototype.

Work on the first Bionic Dolphin, or Variable Attitude Submersible Hydrofoil (VASH), began in 1988 and was completed in 1992.

"I have spent my whole life surfing, diving and water skiing. Using that experience and love of water, along with my knowledge in aeronauticals ... They just went together," he said.

"I wanted to make something to ride in that would do the things dolphins do. It's buoyant and light and pulls itself under water with its wings."

Doc no longer has the first prototype, after it was passed on to an investor. That business relationship failed and Doc has never regained possession of it.

Instead, he has worked with Innes to build the dolphin that appeared in Auckland recently. Another two of the submersible watercrafts are still in production, including a two-seater model, which will have a 400hp engine.

The original model was made of fiberglass but the newer versions are made from tougher materials, including kevlar.

"It's virtually bullet-proof," Doc said. "But it's so light. The first model weighed about 600lb (272kg) and the two-man version will be double that."

Innes' one-man model is powered by a 110hp jet ski petrol engine and uses five control surfaces to perform barrel rolls, leaps and dives. It is also fitted with a fighter jet canopy, where the driver sits.

But Doc said each vessel cost thousands of dollars to build.

"A lot of people said to us, 'you're going to be rich,' but we're still waiting for that to happen," he said, adding that the venture was more about fulfilling a lifelong dream than making money.

"It's totally immersing. You feel like you're completely part of it all down there. Once you get over the initial human condition of having water flowing over the top of you, it's just amazing to still be dry and zip across the water."

He eventually hopes to build kits, so that people can finish their own dolphins at home.

He wants to finish the models currently in production by 2007 and spend his retirement touring the world and test-driving the dolphins in different locations.

For now, though, he said rainy, stormy days were the perfect chance to spend time working on his Bionic Dolphin at home in his garage.


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