Lifesaving Drone Boat Surveyed Storm-Damaged Bahamas Harbor

A sonar-equipped EMILY drone conducting a survey in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas (Hydronalix)

Published Oct 4, 2019 1:57 PM by Navy Live

The day after Hurricane Dorian struck Abaco Island in the Bahamas, a chaotic scene greeted the first disaster responders arriving at the community of Marsh Harbour. On land, homes sat in ruins, palm trees lay uprooted, and yachts and sailboats were strewn about like toys. In the harbor itself, vessels were capsized or sunk - and telephone poles, cars, house roofs, and other underwater debris blocked the disaster-relief ship from sailing to the main pier.  

But the responders had a tool to get ashore: EMILY the robotic lifeguard - officially known as the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard - a remote-controlled unmanned surface vehicle that has proven its worth saving imperiled swimmers during natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

With its high-definition sonar and sophisticated sensors, EMILY revealed underwater debris which posed navigational hazards. Within two hours, the relief ship was ashore distributing much-needed supplies. Throughout the following week, EMILY mapped more channels in other storm-ravaged areas of the Bahamas.

EMILY is the product of a collaboration among the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Navy’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, and marine robotics company Hydronalix. SBIR provides the Navy with innovative advances in technology created by small firms, and STTR transitions products developed by both small businesses and research institutions to the Navy and Marine Corps.

The technology in EMILY followed a long road over its 18 years of development, advancing from marine mammal research to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Iraq to lifesaving rescue innovation.

“EMILY’s 18-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.”

EMILY’s roots stretch back to 2001, when Tony Mulligan, the founder of drone manufacturer Advanced Ceramics Research, received ONR and SBIR-STTR funding to develop a computer-operated and sensor-enabled UAV to monitor whale movements during Navy sonar testing. In 2003, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq erupted, Mulligan improved and transformed his vehicles into the Silver Fox UAVs, which helped U.S. troops conduct aerial surveillance and reconnaissance missions. 

Advanced Ceramic Research was purchased by BAE in 2009, and Mulligan departed to found Hydronalix. In 2011, he received Navy funding to disassemble existing Silver Foxes and use their components - like motor parts and navigation computers - to build unmanned surface vehicles for hurricane tracking, tsunami response and search-and-rescue missions. This technology was used to develop EMILY, and Hydronalix still works with the Navy today to develop new variants for search and rescue, law enforcement, water sampling, and mine counter-measure missions. Over the years, Hydronalix has provided more than 400 EMILY devices to navies, coast guards, and search-and-rescue units in the U.S. and other countries including Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, France, Mongolia, Brazil, Mexico, and Greece.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.