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Meet the Robotic Lifeguard that Rescued 300 Syrian Migrants from Drowning

19 May 2016

Earlier this year, EMILY came to the rescue of 300 Syrian migrants that were in danger of drowning in the waters off the Greek island of Lesbos. But EMILY is not a human woman. She’s a robot with capabilities that exceed those of the human lifeguards you’re used to.

EMILY, or the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard as she’s called officially, is capable of punching through 30-foot waves and riptides, as well as smashing into rocks and reefs.

The remote-controlled buoy 15 years in the making. (Image Credit: ONR) The remote-controlled buoy 15 years in the making. (Image Credit: ONR)

The robot, 15 years in the making, derived from research involving marine mammal research and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

“EMILY’s 15-year progression is inspiring,” said Bob Smith, Director at Small Business Innovation Research. “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 robot was the result of a collaboration between inventor Tony Mulligan, ONR and the Navy’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.

Each 25-lb. cylindrical EMILY robot is draped in bright orange, red and yellow colors, and is powered by a jet engine system similar to that of a mini jet ski. The robot can travel at speeds up to 22 mph to rescue swimmers and is equipped with two-way communication radios, a video camera with a live feed and lights for night rescues.

“EMILY is made of Kevlar and aircraft-grade composites and is virtually indestructible,” said Mulligan, CEO of Hydronalix, a maritime robotics company. “The devices can be thrown off a helicopter or bridge and then driven via remote control to whoever needs to be rescued.”

A Brief History of EMILY

Back in 2001, Mulligan received funding from the Office of Naval Research, the Navy’s Small Business Innovation Research program, and the Small Business Technology Transfer program to create a computer- and sensor-operated UAV that would monitor whale movements during Navy sonar testing.

This was around the same time that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq broke out, which propelled Mulligan to improve and transform his vehicles into Silver Fox UAVs in 2003, to help U.S. troops conduct aerial surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

In 2011, Mulligan received additional funding to disassemble existing Silver Foxes and use components like motor parts and navigation computers to build unmanned surface vehicles for hurricane tracking, tsunami response, and search-and-rescue missions. Mulligan took this a step further and developed EMILY.

U.S. rescue teams in Oregon and Washington, D.C., are also expressing interest in the technology.

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