Tucson tech: Storm-tracking craft test waters here

2013-02-26T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:32:21Z Tucson tech: Storm-tracking craft test waters hereDavid Wichner Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

From a little lagoon in Tucson to raging seas, a tiny unmanned watercraft developed by a Sahuarita company is on course to provide new hurricane-tracking data.

Hydronalix Inc., a company headed by University of Arizona engineering alumnus Tony Mulligan, is conducting pre-delivery testing of 10 unmanned, autonomous boats for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The four-year-old company previously developed the EMILY (EMergency Integrated Lifesaving LanYard) for use as a remote-controlled water rescue craft.

The EMILY Hurricane Tracker version is being developed under a Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to help NOAA better track hurricanes by going where no watercraft has gone before.

The EMILY hurricane craft is about 5 1/2 feet long and weighs about 90 pounds, give or take depending on its payload. Its small gas engine can generate speeds of up to 16 knots (about 18 mph), but EMILY can cruise on its own for five to 10 days at 7 knots (about 8 mph).

But what the EMILY Hurricane Tracker lacks in speed and brawn, it makes up in brains.

Outfitted with a satellite data link and a variety of sensors, EMILY can be launched and programmed on the fly to steer into storms and continuously collect and transmit data such as barometric pressure, wind and temperature to its operators.

Software developed by Hydronalix, with the help of the UA College of Engineering, allows the craft to operate autonomously or be reprogrammed midcourse.

The craft is designed to be controlled by signals sent via satellite with a computer - or even a smartphone - by means of short text messages that tell EMILY to steer to a new waypoint, or turn itself on or off, for example.

While NOAA collects data from various platforms, including storm-tracking manned aircraft, drones and data-gathering buoys, there is no system yet that can gather and continually transmit the kind of sea-level data EMILY can gather, Hydronalix and NOAA officials said.

While planes can gather point data about storm conditions, they can't chart a storm's ongoing development like EMILY will, said Mark Patterson, vice president of technology for Hydronalix.

"The idea here is, we get a data dump every 10 minutes through the satellite," Patterson said. "That will be the first time people have gathered data of this sort of quality over time."

A major goal is to navigate the EMILY tracker into the eye of a hurricane, where it can become "entrained," or carried along, by the storm, NOAA program manager Justyna Nicinska said.

"Our goal with this technology is to actually have it surface launched, and entrain it into the eye of the storm and have it follow along with the storm for a couple of days and collect boundary layer data, primarily pressure (data)," Nicinska said.

"That is one of the key parameters that's missing in our current observations ... that could be very useful for forecasters to integrate into current numerical models," she said.

Such valuable technology doesn't come cheap: The EMILY Hurricane Tracker model costs about $30,000 each.

But knowing where a hurricane is headed and how big of a punch it will pack on arrival is a key to assuring safe evacuations - or perhaps avoiding multimillion-dollar storm preparations, Patterson noted.

Though a few EMILY trackers were launched during a limited test off the California coast last November, much testing remains to be done before the little craft is hurled into a hurricane.

For now, Mulligan and his Hydronalix crew are testing the finished craft at the small, remote-controlled boat area at Tucson's Silverbell Lake, in Christopher Columbus Park.

On Monday, Mulligan was the literal hands-on CEO, tweaking the boat's fuel mix as company engineer Steve Shemenski gave the craft commands via satellite with laptop computer.

The acceptance testing includes remote starting and stopping, programmed navigation, rerouting the craft midcourse, 24 hours of continuous operation and a rollover test, where the water-tight boat is intentionally capsized, righted and restarted.

The company hopes to finish testing six boats this week and four next week, Mulligan said.

After the acceptance, the boats will go through testing in gradually more demanding weather conditions before they're thrown into a hurricane.

If all goes well, NOAA's Nicinska said, EMILY may be deployed toward the end of summer.

Other NOAA agencies are also interested in using EMILY for jobs such as marine sensing, shallow water mapping, habitat detection and marine debris detection.

"We're also looking to put cameras on it for port security (uses)," Mulligan said.

Meanwhile, Hydronalix has delivered 22 of its EMILY rescue craft to lifeguard departments and first responders, including one delivered to the Tucson area's Northwest Fire District last year for swift-water rescue, Mulligan said.

And the company is still working on other designs for the Navy and other undisclosed government customers.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

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