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New Robot System Helps Migrants Cross The Mediterranean Safely


It's Monday, time for All Tech Considered. And today, robots to the rescue.


CORNISH: Imagine a cockroach-sized robot, for instance, finding people trapped in a collapsed building, or a walking humanoid robot fighting fires aboard Navy ships. Researchers are working on both of those things.


And around the Greek island of Lesbos, an American team is putting a robot to work to help rescue migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The researchers from Texas A&M are sending a jet-powered, remote-controlled lifesaving buoy into the surf. Joanna Kakissis has the story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's a cold, rainy morning here on the coast. A first responder from the Hellenic Red Cross, Vassilis Hatzopoulos, points at the sea. Eight migrant rafts, including one that's not moving.

VASSILIS HATZOPOULOS: OK, this boat up there - no engine - failure of the engine. That's it. So they asked for help from the Coast Guard.

KAKISSIS: Two other rafts move closer to the shore.

I'm walking with John Sims. Back home, he's a fire chief in Arizona. But here, he's teaching the Hellenic Red Cross to use a device called EMILY. And there she goes into the water. You might call her a boat. You might call her a buoy. She's about 4 feet long, weighs 25 pounds and looks like a cylinder wrapped in an orange life jacket. John Sims is steering EMILY with the remote. She's speeding toward the migrant rafts.

JOHN SIMS: I'll keep her about 20, 30 meters behind her.

KAKISSIS: Wow, she's going pretty fast.

SIMS: Yeah.

KAKISSIS: She rides waves really well.

SIMS: She does - rides really, really well. The only thing that affects her sometimes over a wave is a little bit of wind.

KAKISSIS: So somebody falls in the water, they can just, like, hug EMILY?

SIMS: Yep, just jump onto it. And it gives enough time for a lifeguard then to get suited up and get out to them.

KAKISSIS: The raft arrives onshore. Red Cross volunteers cover the shivering Afghan migrants in Mylar blankets. No one falls out. They did not need EMILY to help rescue anyone in this situation. Sims says she was standing by just in case she was needed.

SIMS: EMILY is perfect as a floating life buoy or a floating life jacket. We can throw it in the water, and it doesn't take much time. We can go out there and we can escort the boat in. If anybody has a problem - they're hypothermic, they're sick, there's a problem with the boat and they happen to fall overboard - EMILY can be on site within seconds.

KAKISSIS: Sims and I are now talking with Tony Mulligan, who invented EMILY. He owns a maritime robotics company and says he designed these rescue robots to be practically indestructible.

TONY MULLIGAN: They're made out of Kevlar and aircraft-grade composites, so they can handle a 30-foot wave, they can be thrown out of a helicopter or off of bridges.

KAKISSIS: And EMILY has saved lives. Her first rescue involved a father and son caught in rough surf off the coast of Oregon.

MULLIGAN: The helicopter wasn't going to be able to get there for an hour, the water's 50 degrees, and it was too rough to put swimmers in. And the boat ran out with a line, they grabbed on, and they pulled them back.

KAKISSIS: Since then, Mulligan has sent 260 EMILYs to first responders around the world.

MULLIGAN: We've been told that she's done a lot of really cool things in Mongolia and Kazakhstan during floods. It's common in Indonesia for tsunami response.

KAKISSIS: And he's part of this team that brought two EMILYs to Greece.

MULLIGAN: We're Roboticists Without Borders. So the whole purpose is bring technology to the first responders, and make it safer for them and make them be able to do a better job.

KAKISSIS: But it's more than a job for Mulligan. It's personal. He shows me the back of EMILY, which stands for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard - at least officially.

MULLIGAN: You'll see there's a little rose on the logo. And there's three initials, ERS, which stood for Emily Rose Shane.

KAKISSIS: Mulligan named EMILY after his daughter's best friend, who was killed in a car accident. She was just 13. Mulligan remembers she loved helping people, and now EMILY the rescue robot is doing just that. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis on Lesbos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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