Unmanned Systems Maritime Search and Rescue

Unmanned maritime operations have a unique set of challenges that no other domain faces due to the effects of water on the vehicle and sensors. This is further complicated by taking into account the restrictions of time as a factor for when a mission begins as a search and rescue operation and changes into a search and recovery mission. This paper will discuss the selection of an unmanned maritime system to support search and recovery operations. Other topics of focus will include: a detailed description of onboard proprioceptive and exteroceptive sensors specifically designed for the maritime environment, a recommended modification to the system, how unmanned maritime systems can be used in conjunction with unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to enhance their effectiveness, advantages of unmanned maritime systems over manned systems, and if there are sensor suites that are more effective on unmanned systems.

Selected Vehicle

One unmanned surface vessel that has made a substantial impact on maritime search and rescue operations is the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard (EMILY). Originally developed in 2001, the EMILY is a remotely controlled robotic lifeguard that is four feet in length, weighs 25 pounds, and can travel up to 22 miles per hour (Duffie, 2016). The EMILY has provided lifeguard support in various places such as Los Angeles but most recently has been tasked to support rescuing refugees as they attempt to flee Syria through the Mediterranean Sea (Silverman, 2017).

Onboard Sensors

There are two different variants of the Emily vessel for search and rescue operations:  Sonar EMILY and Payload Station or the Swift Water EMILY (Hydronalix, 2016). Both versions can be operated by satellite or remote control, which control proprioceptive sensors such as the steering servo, the motor control module, and magnetic power switch box (Hydronalix, 2016). Depending on the type of mission and the version of EMILY the exteroceptive sensor options change. The Swift Water EMILY comes with an electro-optical / infrared camera to allow the vehicle to be used during day time or night time rescue operations (Hydronalix, 2016). The Sonar EMILY and Payload Station comes with a Hummingbird ION scan sonar which provides both dual beam and single imaging sonar in order to provide high resolution imagery under the water’s surface even through different water temperatures and other water column interferences (Hydronalix, n.d.). The sonar has a 400 meter range between the vehicle and the control station and is capable of adjusting the color palette of the images to three options to allow it to be useful in overcast or direct sunlight as it sends the imagery to a smart phone or laptop (Hydronalix, n.d.).

Recommended modifications

To make the system more all-inclusive for life saving operations, the addition of a two hand manipulator with hepatic sensors equipped in order to provide the operator of the system the capability to save a victim that is unconscious. The concept of hepatic hand manipulators is not a new, but an idea from the OceanOne system, a humanoid robotic diver created by a team at Stanford University (Ackerman, 2016). This is an alternative to an approach in which the remotely operated underwater vehicles attempt to lasso the victim with a rope in order to bring them ashore.

Cross Domain Operations

UAS can also be used alongside unmanned maritime systems to further enhance search and rescue operations. In situations where the waters are too dangerous for manned vehicles to approach, unmanned systems serve as an alternative solution. By first deploying an UAV equipped with appropriate visual sensors such as visual detection and ranging (ViDAR), electro-optical, or infrared in order to locate and track the position of a victim the information can be sent down to sea level to a USV. The USV such as the Emily can be deployed from the shore or a vessel once global positioning system (GPS) coordinates are received. The development of a cross domain network is critical for not only the operators but the systems to be able to communicate and work together towards a common goal. One project that is already attempting to do this is the ICARUS Unmanned Search and Rescue research project with a primary goal to develop unmanned systems across the aerial, ground, and maritime domains that can collaborate together across a wireless network for search and rescue operations (ICARUS, n.d.). In July 2015, ICARUS demonstrated the capabilities of their UAS and USV communicating together in a simulated maritime crisis event where the systems demonstrated tasks within search and rescue operations including: area scanning/searching, victim detection and approach, raft deployment, and victim rescue (ICARUS, 2015).

Unmanned Versus Manned Systems

Unmanned systems do have a significant number of benefits compared to manned systems, but at a cost. Unmanned systems remove the operator from the event and protect them from being at risk in a dangerous situation. However, in regards to search and rescue, by removing the operator from the rescue you also reduce the amount of victim assessment that can be made on site and even initial measures of onsite medical treatment such as pressure on a wound. A sensor system is not necessarily better on an unmanned system but compared to an unmanned system, an operator is forced to rely on his sensors or tools versus his own situational awareness of an event.


Ackerman, E. (2016, April 28). Standford’s Humanoid Diving Robot Takes on Undersea Archaeology and Coral Reefs. IEE Spectrum. Retrieved from http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/stanford-ocean-one-humanoid-diving-robot

Black Laser Learning Latest News. (2017, February 28).  Self-Propelled Rescue Robot Incorporates Humminbird® Sonar to Find Drowning Victims. Black Laser Learning. Retrieved from http://blacklaserlearning.com/news/38-news-item/147-self-propelled-rescue-robot-incorporates-sonar-to-find-drowning-victims

Duffie, W. (2016, May 5). From Whales to Silver Foxes to Refugees: EMILY Robot is A Lifesaver. Office of Naval Research. Retrieved from https://www.onr.navy.mil/en/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2016/EMILY-Emergency-Lifesaving-Robotic-Lifeguard.aspx

Hydronalix. (2016). EMILY Parts Catalog. Retrieved from https://hydronalixdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/emily-domestic-parts-catalog_email.pdf

Hydronalix. (n.d). Sonar EMILY and Payload Station. Retrieved from http://www.emilyrobot.com.au/sonar-emily/

ICARUS. (n.d.) Project Objectives. Retrieved from http://www.fp7-icarus.eu/

ICARUS. (2015, November 12). Successful Final Demonstrations in Alfeite, Portugal (Sea Scenario) and Marche-en-Famenne, Belgium (Land Scenario). Retrieved from http://www.fp7-icarus.eu/sites/fp7-icarus.eu/files/publications/11.12.2015_Icarus%20newsletter_v4.pdf

Silverman, L. (2017, March 22). Meet Emily, The Lifeguard Robot That’s Saving Refugees Crossing The Mediterranean Sea.  Kera News. Retrieved from http://keranews.org/post/meet-emily-lifeguard-robot-thats-saving-refugees-crossing-mediterranean-sea

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