The San Diego Union-Tribune
By Mike Lee
It’s being called the hottest lifeguard on the beach — and it might just save your life.
The new robotic water-rescue device nicknamed Emily is getting its figurative feet wet in Malibu this week and could soon make its way to San Diego, where lifeguards hope to test a prototype.
The remote-controlled machine, which costs roughly $3,500, is made by a Malibu-based engineer who regularly boats in San Diego Bay and used to develop drones for a Navy group based on the Silver Strand.
Emily is expected to assist — not replace — human lifeguards, who said they’re intrigued by the possibilities for a big technological advance similar to the introduction of marine engines and personal watercraft in decades past.
“This would be the first step forward in terms of a drone or something that is remotely controlled,” said Lt. Nick Lerma, a San Diego city lifeguard. “That is a fairly major leap.”
Emily’s 4-foot-long foam core is covered in red canvas and powered by a small pump propulsion system, much like a Jet Ski. Operators can deploy the flotation device from a beach or a boat, and the device can cruise up to 28 mph. The core and ropes attached to it give swimmers in distress something to hang on to while lifeguards respond.
Lerma has some reservations about the product. “My first question is what if the victim needs help getting onto this flotation device?” he said. “We have to give it a good look.”
Others are saying the same thing after Emily got a write-up as “invention of the month” in the July issue of Popular Science magazine, said Anthony Mulligan, CEO of Hydronalix, the company developing Emily.
He said the concept started when he was developing a robotic boat for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to use for health checks on marine mammals.
“When I realized how well it worked, it dawned on me that if I could tow a life preserver out to someone who was drowning, it would get there much faster than a person swims,” Mulligan said.
The resulting invention looks like a smashup between a buoy and a large remote-controlled toy. Mulligan said it can fly through heavy surf and make tight turns at high speeds.
“People tend to tell us, ‘Wow, that seems like a really obvious idea,’ ” Mulligan said. “The technology exists. Nobody has used it for this application.”
Emily stands for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard. It’s also the first name of a Malibu teenager and friend of Mulligan’s family who recently died after being hit by a car.
Mulligan said she was the kind of girl who always wanted to help, and “this product is all about helping people.”
He tested the device two months ago with Fernando Boiteux, the Malibu-area lifeguard chief for Los Angeles County. Boiteux was wary of Mulligan’s pitch at first, but said he became impressed by Mulligan’s engineering credentials and how his prototype performed.
Boiteux said Emily may be particularly useful in winter, when coastal waters are chilly, waves are large and his staff is fewer in number than during peak season. His team has one rescue boat for 25 miles of busy beachfront to patrol, so he’s confident “this thing can make a difference.”
He said he worries about whether distressed swimmers will understand how to use the device. “I don’t know what is going to be the public reaction when they see that little boat coming at them,” Boiteux said.
That’s one reason rescue professionals don’t foresee robots taking over for the men and women in California’s beach watchtowers.
“You still have the same lifeguard swimming out to that person (in distress), only now that person has something to hold on to so they aren’t as panicky or distressed,” Mulligan said.
He thinks the price tag for Emily is reasonable, but it’s enough to make San Diego lifeguards cautious. Lt. Andy Lerum said he’s not holding his breath for money to buy the device after budget cuts trimmed the city’s lifeguard service by eight positions this fiscal year.
“There are not going to be any big purses that open up with money to buy something like that right away,” he said.
Still, Lerum wants to see a local demonstration after this week’s round of testing at Zuma Beach in Malibu.
If that demonstration goes well, Mulligan hopes Emily will be deployed during the busy Fourth of July weekend in Malibu. He’s planning to reach full production mode by the end of summer.
Hydronalix already is developing more advanced versions of Emily that use Doppler sonar to find rip currents, avoid collisions with beachgoers and seek out swimmers in trouble. They also may include speakers that lifeguards can use to communicate with swimmers, for instance to warn them of danger zones or explain how to use the novel lifesaving device.
Mike Lee: (619) 293-2034; firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @sdenvirobeat