EMILY is a robotic option for surf rescue

Scheduled for a cameo test swim this summer in Ocean Shores’ waters, EMILY is starting to turn heads as local officials take a long and interested look at what might be the Surf Rescue team of the future.

Known as “the robotic lifeguard,” EMILY is short for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard, and Ocean Shores has begun talking with a Central Oregon fire dpeartment now using a prototype of the mechanized system. It’s in testing and being considered as a potentially far cheaper solution than maintaining a fully manned Surf Rescue team of police and firefighters.

The Arizona-based company that developed the system, Hydronalix, specializes in “new technology concepts for marine robotics,” and it has a couple of prototypes in use by the Depoe Bay Fire District along the Oregon coast for the past two years. Last year, EMILY was used by the fire department to save two people trapped in the surf by a rip current.

Depoe Bay Capt. David Jensen and a crew were to give a demonstration July 1 in Ocean Shores, but it will have to be rescheduled after the Fourth of July holidays. Jensen and other Fire District officials say based on their experience, EMILY would do fine in most conditions on the Washington coast.

“Our experience is that it is a lot better, a lot better than what we were doing,” Jensen said of the remote-controlled tow-line system.

It also reduces the risk of an accident in a human rescue attempt, Jensen added.

“You don’t have to put someone’s life in jeopardy for a a conscious victim immediately,” he said. “That doesn’t have to be your plan-A anymore. Also, it saves a lot of time because you don’t have to put on dry suits and all the protective equipment you need to go into the water. You can be standing on shore operating it. So it’s a lot more expedient in that perspective.”

By combining miniaturized radio, sensor, computer navigation systems with “high-density and high-efficiency propulsion technology, we have been able to develop a new class of cost-effective robots,” said a company statement. The system also is being used in Los Angeles County, San Diego County, Rhode Island and by Arizona Swift Water Rescue teams. NOAA (hurricane tracking) and the Navy (beach ordnance mapping) have been testing uses of EMILY.


When used to save the two lives last year, Depoe Bay firefighters were responding to a report of two children between 10 and 12 years old being caught in a rip current in an area known as the “Devil’s Punchbowl.”

Here’s an account from the fire district:

“One child made it to shore as the firefighters arrived on scene. The child’s father was already in the water attempting to swim to the other child who remained stranded on a rock outcropping. The child dismounted the rocks on his boogie board and the rip immediately began pulling him seaward. Firefighters immediately deployed the unmanned, remote-controlled water rescue craft known as EMILY. Both swimmers grabbed the rescue device and were pulled into shallow water where they were met by a firefighter who helped them to shore.”

It was the first known use of the device and proved to be an immediate life-saver, both in the rescue and for the budget-strapped fire district.

“EMILY is the ideal rescue device for our dangerous surf conditions and our limited resources,” said Depoe Bay Fire Chief Joshua Williams. “She can be deployed quickly from the shoreline — powered by an electric impeller similar to those used on jet skis. EMILY can travel 12 times as fast as a person, can make tight turns in choppy waters and can run for up to 20 minutes on a single battery charge. We are pleased that this recent addition to our arsenal of life-saving tools has already proven her worth.”

Depoe Bay Rural Protection Fire District covers 14 miles of the central Oregon coast from the Siletz Keys south to Otter Rock.

Before EMILY, Depoe Bay had tried a number of things to respond to surf rescue emergencies.

“We had a regional water rescue team that was based on jet skis. But as you know up there, a jet ski operation can be really dangerous,” Jensen said. “That didn’t work out for us and it requires so much training. You look at Coast Guard swimmers, and that’s their only job is to be swimming in the ocean. And to think that firefighters and police officers can do the same thing … water rescue is more dangerous than structure fire-fighting.”

EMILY, he said, “is the next-best option.”


Depending on surf conditions, EMILY is directed to the person being rescued with a tethered line that has grab-handles attached to it.

“Our experience when we rescued people off of it was that it grabbed onto them and pulled them in out of the rip they were in,” Jensen said. “It only took a little bit to pull them in closer to shore where they could walk to us and we could walk out to them.”

When responders arrived, it was only a matter of seconds before EMILY was in the water and headed to the victims with help.

“It’s pretty quick,” Jensen said.

The district now has two EMILYs on hand — one in a primary-response vehicle always on duty and another in the station. Both are prototypes donated by the company for live trials and the first documented full-service use. It’s not yet clear what the cost might be if Ocean Shores or Grays Harbor County, or state Parks were to deploy them on the Washington coast.

“The one we’re using is still in development, and they are still fixing some things,” Jensen said. “Most of the time when we use it, it is out in the surf. We have a Coast Guard station that is right on the bay, so they usually get to people out farther.”

Jensen has been on duty when two people were killed in a rip current — it was his first day on the job. He knows it can be the most dangerous duty and also the most needed service for a coastal community.

While they are still testing EMILY, Jensen notes there are some limitations.

“If the surf is too heavy, it can be ineffective,” he said. Heavy waves require some technique to navigate through, so lots of testing is necessary to keep it on course.

Ocean Shores Public Safety Chief Mike Styner said the planned demonstration in Ocean Shores is being rescheduled. Mayor Crystal Dingler also has expressed an interest after viewing a video demonstration of EMILY in operation.

Costs are still unknown, and Jensen acknowledged Depoe Bay is getting its EMILYS from the company for testing the product.

To see more about the rescue online: http://depoebayfire.com/

EMILY Specifications

• Battery Storage – 577 watt/hours

• Speed – programmable for max of 40 mph

• 35 minute duration at 40 mph max speed

• Weight – 25 pounds

• Craft Dimensions – 54” Length, 16” Width, 8” Height