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.”

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