Hydronalix grows to meet demand for robo-boats

After selling his aerial drone business to defense giant BAE Systems in 2009, Tony Mulligan shifted his focus from air to water and set out to develop small unmanned craft for rescue and search. water emergency.

The idea led Mulligan to found Sahuarita Hydronalix Inc.which is now planning a major expansion to meet demand for its growing line of unmanned surface vessels and aerial drones.

The company’s line of unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, now includes a sonar-equipped version of EMILY, a more powerful general-purpose unmanned craft with a gas-electric hybrid power plant, a robot-boat that can launch a rotorcraft drone and an amphibious drone that can fly or navigate the water as needed.

Mulligan said the company has sold about 900 of its Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard (EMILY) robotic lifebuoys to first aid agencies around the world.

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Overall, Mulligan said, the company has booked about $60 million in contracts since its inception and has delivered about 1,600 self-contained watercraft and aerial drones to emergency agencies, search and defense agencies and operators. traders from all over the world.

And, with its biggest single contract in hand, Hydronalix is ​​poised to expand its drone production locally.

Robot boats for Marines

In September, Hydronalix was awarded a $9.1 million contract by the US Navy to develop and integrate a series of “micro-unmanned” surface and aerial vehicles with sensor payloads for surveillance. and enemy explosive detection for the Marine Corps.

Under the Naval Air Warfare Center’s four-year contract, Hydronalix is ​​tasked with developing several capabilities as part of a Phase III small business innovation research program, including explosive ordnance disposal in ports , rivers and shallow coastal waters, river reconnaissance, unmanned swarming systems for disaster relief, maritime mine countermeasures and seabed mapping.

Last year, the Marine Corps tested Hyrdonalix drones for seabed mapping and minehunting as part of the annual BALTOPS (Baltic Operations) exercise.

Hydronalix already producing EMILY rescue robots and other craft to keep up with demand, the company is outgrowing its plant in Sahuarita (with a Green Valley mailing address), where about 40 employees work in research and production.

Mulligan said the company is finalizing plans to open a second plant in southern Arizona in the near future and will likely open a third plant.

“It’s at full capacity, more for research,” Mulligan, a former University of Arizona engineer, said of the Sahuarita space. “So we are in the process of moving our production out of the research (area) and then it will be into the stand-alone facility.”

While most of Hydronalix’s current 42 employees work in Sahuarita, the company has small customer support offices in California, North Carolina and Florida.

Mulligan said Hydronalix – which manufactures its boats in-house from the hull – will likely double the size of its workforce over the next year, adding a range of workers, including composite construction, engineers and even workers to sew canvas boat covers and related textile items.

Global reach

Hydronalix’s EMILYs, which are battery operated and can be used to carry life jackets to struggling swimmers and can be configured with cameras and communications systems, are used by first aid agencies across the country, including California, New York, Texas and Oregon.

Locally, the company has awarded EMILYs to the Northwest and Green Valley Fire Districts, but there have been no buyers in the company’s arid home state, despite its many lakes and river. Colorado bordering, Mulligan said.

“I’m not mad about it or anything – it’s Arizona,” he said. “Fortunately, the rest of the world loves our boats.”

Globally, Hydronalix now has distributors in 33 countries and sells in 50 countries across Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America, Asia, Africa and Australia.

Hydronalix has won an export excellence award from the United States Department of Commerce after expanding its reach to a dozen countries in 2016 with the help of the Arizona Manufacturing Extension Partnership and Arizona’s State Trade Expansion Program (STEP), which includes foreign trade missions and export support services.

On the research side, a version of EMILY designed to take water samples is being used in France and Ireland to monitor red tide along the coasts, while sonar-equipped EMILYs scan Amsterdam’s waterways. , Rotterdam and The Hague, Mulligan said.

The company also recently won a contract from the Department of Energy to use its sonar-equipped robotic boats to monitor the health of sand dollars around hydrokinetic energy systems, which generate power from ocean currents, Mulligan said.

And Michigan’s Department of Transportation uses EMILYs equipped with sonar and cameras to inspect bridges over waterways, earning the system a spot on the 2021 list of “game-changing” technologies. American Society of Civil Engineers, Mulligan noted.

New Abilities

Beyond EMILY, Hydronalix has developed several larger and more powerful boats with gas-electric hybrid engines and the ability to mount sensors for weather monitoring, reconnaissance and other tasks, for research applications, commercial and defense.

Hydronalix’s larger AMY and NIX robo-boats can be paired with the company’s aerial drones capable of carrying small payloads such as water bottles, food or medicine.

And while some of the company’s larger boats can carry small loads of vital supplies, Hydronalix has built and tested a heavy-duty unmanned boat for Marines that can carry up to 500 pounds of gear.

On the research side, Hydronalix recently began testing a flight-capable robotic boat for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s amphibious – it flies like a helicopter and then when it’s on water it can do anything EMILY can do,” Mulligan said. “It can do side scan imaging, sonar imaging, it can do 360 degree imaging. So you could fly from a cliff to a river to see if a car is in the river and then back up.

A recent Interior Department contract is part of a research project with the University of Arizona and Texas A&M University to develop a “smart” EMILY that can navigate inland waterways in the event of a disaster. and take navigation cues from a smart device.

“So if you point your camera at a sinking ferry or someone drowning, it decides how to steer the boat to get it to the people to be rescued,” Mulligan said.

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at [email protected] or 520-573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner. On Facebook: Facebook.com/DailyStarBiz

Earnest A. Martinez