Rescue Me

Local inventor Robert Yonover saves people’s lives.

“I invent survival technology because I seem to always find myself on the edge of dying,” says entrepreneur Robert Yonover.

Photo: Rae Huo

Honolulu scientist and inventor Robert Yonover likes to get off land and into extreme waterman mode. When he’s adventuring in North Shore waves and on rough-water fishing runs in the Molokai Channel, he thinks constantly about safety—but not just his own. Yonover invents survival technology.

Yonover, who earned his doctorate in volcanology and geochemistry at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and spent time in the labs of NASA and MIT, now works off his lānai at his home in Hawai‘i Kai. That’s where he invented his Rescue-Streamer, a line of emergency signaling devices. The technology uses a long strip of bright, orange plastic with struts. For example, the 6-inch-wide streamer can be unfurled to a length of 25 feet and will float on the surface of water. It can also be used on land or snow, and won’t dissipate like smoke or flares. RescueStreamer garnered the notice of the U.S. military, which now uses it on all Navy submarines and in jets.

Q. Why did you invent the RescueStreamer?

A.  “I came up with the idea when I was flying in a spluttering Cessna plane high over the Pacific Ocean. I thought the plane had a fair chance of going down, and remembered those horrible stories from people lost at sea—that the rescue planes fly right over them. Coming up with the concept was simple, but it took 11 years to make it work.

Q. What was the breakthrough?

A.  The struts on the streamer and the way they are attached were the Eureka! part. Nature is my biggest source for inspiration; flexible coconut palms and the human spine inspired the struts. Then I move to the most unnatural setting of all, retail stores like Home Depot, where I wander the aisles looking for existing products I can cut up to get the material consistency and rough design I need.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. The ultimate survival kit: an inflatable rescue board, portable life jacket and a pocket-size desalinator.

Q. What’s been the best thing about inventing?

A. Hearing that my invention saved someone’s life. Like the guy who came up from a scuba dive off Ni‘ihau and the boat was nowhere to be found. He remembered he had a Rescue-Streamer in his buoyancy compensator and proceeded to unfurl it. Right away the boat saw him and retrieved him. The streamer also saved two men lost in the rough terrain of Afghanistan. It’s great to hear things like that.