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'Bionic Dolphin' makes big splash

A new aquatic vehicle that can take passengers beneath the surface of the water, revolve 360 degrees and stand upright like a dolphin, may be released as early as next year, according to its developer. Thomas "Doc" Rowe, creator of the so-called "bionic dolphin," said he hopes to get the watercraft in resorts in 2007 and thinks the vehicle could have a broad array of applications in the future, including rescuing people in harsh ocean conditions. "There's going to be a lot of utility found in this besides having a good time," he said, adding that the government of Bermuda has expressed interest in using the dolphin, which can travel 300 miles without refueling, as a water taxi. But it takes more than an appealing idea to get a product to market.

"It's an interesting concept, but this isn't the first time somebody has come up with a far-out idea," said Roger Hagie, director of public affairs for personal watercraft maker Kawasaki Motors Corp. Powered by a 425-horsepower Corvette engine, the bionic dolphin can cruise the water's surface at up to 55 mph. Passengers wear a four-point seat belt similar to those found in race cars. Constructed of a combination of materials that includes Kevlar -- the material used in bulletproof vests -- the dolphin is built to withstand rough conditions, including 200 mph winds.

Rowe said he hopes that getting the dolphin in resorts next year will lead to opportunities before a wider audience. But several hurdles so far have kept Rowe's dream from becoming a reality. For one, the dolphin needs regulatory approvals before it can be sold. That's proven to be a challenge, because it doesn't fit any preset categories. Designers of water vessels file an application with the U.S. Coast Guard before they can sell their products to the public, according to Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela McArdle.

At present, makers have to designate whether their product is an underwater or above-water vehicle, and the bionic dolphin fits neither category very well. "There's no in-between option," McArdle said. While regulatory approvals pose one hurdle, cost is another. A custom-built dolphin isn't cheap, selling for around $350,000. Rowe said that he hopes once the scale of production increases, prices could fall to around $120,000 for a two-seater. But that still far exceeds the average $9,500 consumers spent for a personal watercraft in the United States last year, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Despite the challenges, Rowe, who has been working on the dolphin since 1988, shows no signs of losing faith in his creation. He recently took it on a cross-country tour."We covered 23 states, and every stop along the way, we were stopped with questions. That's very good to hear," he said.

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