Rescued by a robot?

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If David Hasselhoff and Johnny 5 had a baby, her name would be Emily. Her name is short for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard and she’s a robot lifeguard patrolling the beaches of Malibu.

In October 2009 Tony Mulligan, 47 created a small robotic boat to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitor marine mammals. Seeing how effortlessly it navigated choppy waters, he had the idea to make a life saving craft based on the same principles.

At Mulligan's startup company, a seven-employee company called Hydronalix in Sahuarita, Ariz., he developed a remote-controlled contraption powered by a tiny electric pump called an impeller. It squirts a forceful stream of water so it moves like a Jet Ski which makes it ideal for getting through the wake quickly to reach someone who has gotten in over their head.

Emily’s four-foot-long robotic buoy body is able to race through rough surf at 24 miles per hour and is estimated to be able to rescue distressed swimmers twelve times as fast as human lifeguards. The device's foam core is buoyant enough to support up to five people while they hold on to Emily's ropes until human help can get there. Emily can run up to 80 miles on a single battery charge.

Priced at $3,500, next year's model will have all the bells and whistles, literally. A microphone and speaker acoustics system will allow lifeguards to warn beachgoers of danger zones or calm panicked swimmers. It will feature a sonar device that builds 3D maps of water currents. Built-in sensors will listen for underwater movements and noises associated with swimmers in trouble. Eventually Emily will be able to scan ocean depths for human bodies or ship wrecks using hyperspectral imaging technology.

Right now there is not a high level of interest from investors but once the upgrades are made Mulligan expects to increase the company’s revenue five-fold by next year. President of the United States Lifesaving Association B. Chris Brewster is skeptical. He says, "This is a classic example of an inventor's idea of how to solve a problem that doesn't necessarily coincide with reality." Brewster recognizes the ultimate need for real life lifeguards since no amount of gadgetry on a robotic flotation device will be able to rescue an unconscious swimmer.

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By Heather Fairchild - Heather is a multimedia developer, business owner and work-from-home mom.


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