By David Wichner
Weighing in at 25 pounds, EMILY isn't the biggest lifeguard on the beach.
But she's the fastest, and she'll work overtime without complaining.
EMILY, which loosely stands for EMergency Integrated Lifesaving lanYard, is an unmanned sea vehicle - sort of a remote-controlled boat on steroids - under development by Sahuarita-based Hydronalix Inc.
EMILY, which can be launched and sped through the surf to locate and help distressed swimmers, was recently tested by Los Angeles County Fire Department lifeguards at Zuma Beach in Malibu, Calif., and has drawn interest from San Diego's lifeguard service.
"If a lifeguard has detected that somebody needs to be rescued, they send EMILY out, and the idea is she goes out and gets close and just stops, then they grab on and then lifeguards can decide what to do," said Tony Mulligan, CEO of Hydronalix.
"When the riptide catches four or five people out there, it's really quick, especially in rough water," Mulligan said, noting that the craft can reach top speeds of 40 mph.
"It's balanced so it always lands right and if it flips over, it flips back," he said. "Sometimes it goes through the wave, sometimes it skips over - we've gotten it probably 25 feet in the air."
Equipped with computer intelligence and special sonar, EMILY could detect underwater rip currents or seek out bodies in the water, he said. The craft can be fitted with a communications system and speakers to broadcast warnings or give instructions to distressed victims.
Making EMILY smarter
EMILY isn't the only member of the Hydronalix family - some even smarter siblings are still growing up.
Hydronalix, with the help of University of Arizona scientists, is developing versions of the same rugged craft to perform scientific tasks such as seafloor mapping and wildlife monitoring.
And other versions of the craft could provide surface reconnaissance for the Navy, said Mulligan, a UA alumnus and a veteran developer of unmanned aircraft and advanced materials.
Hydronalix is the latest venture for Mulligan, who sold the advanced materials and unmanned aircraft company he co-founded in Tucson, Advanced Ceramics Research Inc., to defense giant BAE Systems in 2008 for $14.7 million.
Mulligan said he turned to robot maritime vehicles for his next venture, aiming his expertise in aerial drones and advanced materials while not competing with his former company.
"I definitely wanted to do something like this," Mulligan said. "To me, the exciting thing is inventing new things, and inventing a new business. Plus, I wanted to spend more time with the university and doing more community-related activities."
Heading to production
Headquartered in Sahuarita with offices in Malibu and Arlington, Va., Hydronalix has seven employees.
The company has subcontracted administrative and production work to Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing, which was started in 2001 as a joint venture of Advanced Ceramics Research and the San Xavier Development Authority. Mulligan retained partial ownership of Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing in the BAE deal.
Mulligan hopes to soon ramp up production of EMILY, including its composite fiberglass, Kevlar and carbon-fiber hull. The company already has some tentative orders from beachfront hotels and is courting cruise lines, he said.
The simplest version of a line of maritime robots Hydronalix is developing, the basic EMILY model is priced at $3,500 each. Mulligan envisions networks of such craft, linked to sensor-equipped buoys, to automatically monitor long swaths of beach.
The company also has talked with one local fire agency about using the craft for swiftwater rescue of motorists stranded by floodwaters, Mulligan said.
The company's scientific and security model, the Hydronalix Autonomous Science & Security boat, or HASS, will cost thousands more depending on the suite of sensors it carries, Mulligan said.
The company tested the HASS craft last spring at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the Southern California coast, working with officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Watching the coast
NOAA is interested in the HASS boat to monitor the shoreline and marine mammal populations, and perhaps to map shallow waters with special sonars and sensors, said Todd Jacobs, NOAA's deputy superintendent for the marine sanctuary.
"It was very impressive," Jacobs said, adding that NOAA already uses aerial and underwater drones to collect data.
Hydronalix is busy refining the craft with the help of UA scientists, adding artificial intelligence programming to allow it to work autonomously and network with other craft and data-gathering devices.
A powerful platform
Glenn Schrader, associate dean of research and administration for the UA College of Engineering, called the opportunity "enormous."
"Whether it's air, land or sea, these platforms are really powerful," Schrader said last week as EMILY was put through her paces at the pond for remote-controlled boats at Tucson's Christopher Columbus Park.
"You could see these with sensors on them, gathering information about the environment. In other places they could be looking at security ... they could make a difference in the Gulf of Mexico right now," Schrader said.
The HASS craft, which has an 80-mile range per charge with a full battery pack, could save money by working independently, while staff scientists work elsewhere, NOAA's Jacobs said.
On the East Coast, the HASS craft was recently demonstrated to NOAA officials at Chesapeake Bay, for possible use to gather water-quality data.
In another recent test, a HASS boat was sent to Nepal to monitor an ice dam holding back a glacial lake on Mount Everest, Mulligan said.
"The lake's too dangerous to put a person on, and it's too high to fly unmanned robotic airplanes," he said.
EMILY stands for EMergency Integrated Lifesaving lanYard, but the cumbersome acronym is personally very meaningful to Hydronalix CEO Tony Mulligan and his family.
EMILY is named for Emily Rose Shane, a friend of Mulligan's daughter who died at age 13 after being struck by a car in Malibu in April.
Beyond a simple tribute, the rescue craft was named for Emily, daughter of Hollywood producer and Malibu resident Michel Shane ("iRobot," "You Can't Catch Me"), to encourage people to do good for others, Mulligan said.
"If a lifeguard has detected that somebody needs to be rescued, they send EMILY out, and the idea is she goes out and gets close and just stops, then they grab on ..."
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4181.