A robot lifeguard patrols Malibu

emily.top.jpgEmily powers through choppy waters to help human lifeguards rescue swimmers in distress. By Cindy Waxer, contributing writer


(CNNMoney.com) -- Emily may not be the prettiest thing with plastic parts on bikini-riddled Zuma Beach in Malibu, Calif., but 'she' still turns heads.

That's because Emily -- whose name is an acronym for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard -- is a four-foot-long robotic buoy capable of racing through rough surf at 24 miles per hour. Emily's creators estimate that the robot can rescue distressed swimmers twelve times as fast as human lifeguards. Take that, David Hasselhoff!

Serial entrepreneur and engineer Tony Mulligan, 47 -- Emily's inventor -- has a history of tinkering with remotely piloted vehicles. His last company, Advanced Ceramics Research, developed unmanned aircraft for government agencies. But it wasn't until Mulligan created a small robotic boat in October 2009 to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitor marine mammals, and saw how effortlessly it navigated choppy waters, that the idea for Emily was born.

In June 2009, Mulligan sold Advanced Ceramics Research to British Aerospace Electronic Systems for $14.7 million. He promptly funneled $250,000 of that into the development of his red, waterproof, canvas-covered robot.

"Twenty days later, we came up with the first prototype for Emily," he recalls.

The final result is a remote-controlled contraption powered by a tiny electric pump called an impeller, which squirts a forceful stream of water, much like the propulsion system on a Jet Ski. Manufactured by Mulligan's startup, a seven-employee company called Hydronalix in Sahuarita, Ariz., Emily can run up to 80 miles on a single battery charge. The device's foam core is buoyant enough to support up to five people, who cling to Emily's ropes until human aid arrives.

That's a huge help, considering that strong riptides can yank multiple swimmers out to sea at once. Under such conditions, it can take lifeguards more than half an hour to complete a single rescue mission.

"From a technology perspective, [Emily] is quite innovative," says Howie Choset, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "To be able to maneuver such a small craft through choppy waters straight to a drowning victim is incredible."

In late March, Mulligan began testing Emily at Malibu's Zuma Beach, known for its 27 miles of treacherous shoreline. A commercial incarnation is also in the works and scheduled for a spring release -- just in time for March Break debauchery. Next year's model, priced at $3,500, features a sonar device that builds 3D maps of water currents. Built-in sensors listen for underwater movements and noises associated with distressed swimmers.

To distinguish between children roughhousing and swimmers struggling, the latest version boasts a microphone and speaker acoustics system, enabling lifeguards to warn beachgoers of danger zones or calm panicked swimmers. And Mulligan says it won't be long before Emily will be able to scan ocean depths for human bodies or ship wrecks using hyperspectral imaging technology, which measures underwater rays of visible light to distinguish between different materials.

Emily's seafaring powers are slowly winning over investors. To date, the NOAA, the University of Arizona and the U.S. Navy have invested a total of $250,000 in the project. Mulligan expects sales of Emily to increase the company's revenue, currently $250,000, five-fold over the next year.

Still, not everybody's impressed.

"This is a classic example of an inventor's idea of how to solve a problem that doesn't necessarily coincide with reality," says B. Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association. He notes that a robotic floatation device -- no matter how nifty -- can't save an unconscious swimmer.

In other words, the Baywatch faithful can rest easy. While Emily is a useful tool, both Brewster and Mulligan agree: she's unlikely to put muscle-bound human lifeguards out of their jobs anytime soon. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,461.32 -153.49 -0.92%
Nasdaq 4,382.85 -36.63 -0.83%
S&P 500 1,927.11 -14.17 -0.73%
Treasuries 2.23 0.02 0.95%
Data as of 11:20pm ET
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 16.40 -0.20 -1.20%
Yahoo! Inc 42.00 1.82 4.53%
Apple Inc 102.99 0.52 0.51%
Facebook Inc 78.37 -0.32 -0.41%
Boston Scientific Co... 12.32 0.29 2.41%
Data as of 4:04pm ET

Sections

Las Vegas might have first class shopping, dining and nightlife. But for serious gambling, head to Macau. More

The midterm elections are around the corner, and the economy remains a top concern. With unemployment down and inflation low, why do people still feel the economy stinks? More

Uber canceled its free rides with hot girls promotion in Lyon, France before it ever launched. More

Startups focusing on "ag tech," or agricultural technology, are gaining the attention of farmers and investors More

Dressing up in crazy costumes, traveling the world, posing for photos -- and getting paid to do it. Here are journal entries from a day in the life of professional "cosplay" character, Linda Le. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.