Navy's robotic lifeguard answers the call

EMILY, a Kevlar-coated, jet-powered buoy, was recently used to help rescue 300 Syrian refugees off the coast of Greece.

The Navy is investing heavily in unmanned systems, whether aerial vehicles, surface ships or underwater vessels, but it’s also interested in one of the basics of water safety—the lifeguard.

The Office of Naval Research has co-developed a robotic lifeguard called EMILY, for the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard, a four-foot-long, 25-pound remote-controlled buoy that recently was used in the rescue of almost 300 Syrians off of the Greek Island of Lesbos, ONR said in a release.

Considering  the proliferation of unmanned systems in recent years, a robotic buoy might seem like a relatively simple thing, but EMILY, a product of a collaboration between ONR, inventor Tony Mulligan and the Navy’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, has been in the works for a decade and a half. “EMILY’s 15-year progression is inspiring,” said SBIR Director Bob Smith. “From whale-monitoring efforts, to supporting warfighters in harm’s way, to impacting global humanitarian efforts, EMILY is a classic overnight success story years in the making.”

The devices are made of Kevlar and aircraft-grade composites, are powered by a jet ski-like engine that allows them to travel up to 22 miles per hour, and come equipped with two-way radios, a video camera with a live feed to smart phones and lights for night rescues. “The devices can be thrown off a helicopter or bridge and then driven via remote control to whoever needs to be rescued,” said Mulligan, CEO of the maritime robotics company Hydronalix. The devices are tethered to a rope up to 2,000 feet long, operated by remote and can reach people struggling at sea more quickly than other means.

EMILY has gone through several stages in its development. In 2001, Mulligan got funding from ONR and SBIR-STTR to develop a unmanned aerial vehicle to monitor whale movements. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he developed the device into the Silver Fox, a small UAV used for surveillance. In 2011, ONR said, Mulligan applied Silver Fox components to building unmanned surface vessels for hurricane tracking, tsunami response and search-and-rescue missions.

Eventually, that technology was put into EMILY. Currently, more than 260 of the devices are in use, not only by the United States but also by South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, France, Mongolia, Brazil, Mexico and Greece. Rescue teams in Oregon and Washington, D.C., also have expressed interest in using it, ONR said.

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