Ross Hoag of Cloud Cap Technology Goodrich ISR Systems launches a remote-controlled boat in Sahuarita Lake under the watchful eye of Hydronalix CEO Anthony Mulligan. The prototype boat carries technologies being tested for the Navy.

When rip tides began pulling a child out to sea earlier this month off the Oregon coast, firefighters called upon a made-in-Sahuarita lifesaving device to bring the boy to safety without endangering others.

The Depoe Bay Fire District staff arrived near the Devil’s Punch Bowl on July 15 to find a father swimming toward his son, who was being pulled out to the ocean on a boogie board. The firefighters launched a robot-controlled boat called EMILY, which raced through the water to the father and son, who grabbed the boat and were pulled to safety on a 2,000-foot rope, Depoe Bay Fire Joshua L. Williams said.

Williams called EMILY “the ideal rescue device for our dangerous surf conditions and our limited resources.”

EMILY was designed and built by Hydronalix of Sahuarita, which located here because CEO and tech entrepreneur Anthony Mulligan was attracted to Sahuarita Lake Park and the town’s wholesome atmosphere.

In 2004, Mulligan, a University of Arizona mechanical engineer, owned a company designing remote-controlled airplanes, or drones. He was considering moving from Marana to Washington, D.C., until he heard about the lake.

“We discovered there were houses on the lake in Sahuarita. I could drive to work — our facility was in the (Tucson International) Airport area — and not have to get on the highway. And it’s a nice, peaceful area for our daughter, who was starting third grade, so we bought a house on the lake,” Mulligan said.

Mulligan said when he first walked into the house, he looked through the back window, saw a sailboat on the lake and said, “I’ll take it.”

The startled real estate agent asked if he wanted to at least look at the second floor, but Mulligan got his checkbook out and sealed the deal.

Next challenge

Five years later, Mulligan sold Advanced Ceramics Research Inc. to German weapons contractor BAE Systems for $14.7 million. While the sale contract prevented him from building unmanned aircraft, it said nothing about remote-controlled boats.

“When I was a small child, we grew up partly in Sierra Vista and my family used to build model airplanes. I used to also build model boats and race them on the weekends,” Mulligan said.

“I hadn’t done that in 25 or 30 years, but after selling the robot airplane business, I wanted to go back and make model robot boats. It was a hobby. When some people get some money they want to set the world speed record. I just wanted to build some robotic boats,” Mulligan said.

The soft-spoken Mulligan began designing them at home and testing them out in the lake and while he was convinced of their value, the world needed a bit of convincing.

“I was sure the Navy would want it or NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), but they didn’t know they could use it. Yeah, I had to educate everybody for the first year as to why this would be a good thing,” he said.

One contract is with the Office of Naval Research for a speedy 50-inch drone-boat that can deliver explosives and destroy floating mines.

Another was for a four-foot boat for NOAA, which wanted something that could take pictures of creatures in marine wildlife sanctuaries and was stable enough to take pictures in the surf zone. It was the NOAA boat that led to the development of EMILY, the rescue boat favored by lifeguards.

“We were living part-time in Malibu, where it was easy to test it. It dawned on us that if it could handle the surf so well, we could put a life jacket on it and rush a life jacket to someone in trouble,” he said.

“I decided this was really cool. I saw some lifeguards at Starbucks and talked to the lifeguard chief. He liked the idea, I went back to Tucson and built a prototype and tested it in Sahuarita Lake. It worked really good. I drove it to Malibu the next day and it worked extremely well in the ocean. For the last two years we’ve been developing it to work out the bugs.”

EMILY officially means Emergency Integrated Lifesaving LanYard, because it is attached to a 2,000-foot long rope that can be used to haul it back to shore, along with swimmers who may be clinging to it. It also is named for a close friend of Mulligan’s daughter who died in California.

Making the move

In July 2011, Mulligan moved his company, Hydronalix, into Duval Commerce Court in Sahuarita, headquarters to a staff of 12, mostly engineers and scientists, who design and assemble the EMILY emergency rescue boat, plus boats for the Navy and NOAA.

The propeller-driven EMILY boats can travel up to 20 mph and are remote-controlled, which allows rescuers to rapidly send the boats to swimmers or others in trouble. This means those in peril can hang on to the boat even in cross-tides or fast-flowing water, thus allowing time for lifeguards or firefighters to reach the scene.

The robot boats have been purchased by the Green Valley and Northwest Fire districts in the Tucson area for flooding rescues and by a number of West Coast lifeguard and fire departments for oceanside rescues and have attracted some federal grant money for purchase.

Related craft are designed to deliver explosives for the Navy, to photograph marine life in heavy surf and transmit weather data from the eyes of hurricanes for NOAA and to monitor a glacial ice dam in Nepal in an area too dangerous to visit on foot and too high to reach by helicopter.

Sahuarita Mayor Duane Blumberg touted Hydronalix in this year’s State of the Town address, saying it is a model for local technology development because it could be located anywhere near an airport and because Mulligan has chosen to locate here.

While Mulligan spend lots of time at a home in Malibu, where he surf-tests the boats, he also conducts testing in Sahuarita Lake Park, where he and a crew of employees test crafts.

Philip Franchine | 547-9738