Disaster relief workers searching for earthquake survivors in Mexico City are using technology developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate.
FINDER, which stands for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, is a suitcase-sized radar instrument capable of detecting human heartbeats under rubble.
Since 2015, two private companies have licensed the technology and taken it to disaster zones, training relief workers to use it and manufacturing new units.
“Our hearts go out to the people of Mexico,” said Neil Chamberlain, task manager for FINDER at JPL.
(In 100 seconds, learn about a new radar-based technology named Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER). Developed by the S&T and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, FINDER can detect a human heartbeat buried beneath 30 feet of crushed materials, hidden behind 20 feet of solid concrete, and from a distance of 100 feet in open spaces. Courtesy of DHS Science and Technology Directorate and YouTube)
“We’re glad to know our technology is being used to make a difference there.”
Mexico City was rocked Tuesday by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake.
As of Thursday, one of the licensees, a company called SpecOps Group Inc., was in Mexico City and actively searching for survivors.
President and CEO Adrian Garulay said members of the company were escorted to the disaster site and connected with rescue workers.
A second company, R4 Incorporated, sold FINDER units to the fire department of Quito, Ecuador, after responding to an earthquake there last year.
David Lewis, president and CEO of R4, said the Quito fire department had dispatched its units to Mexico City to aid in the search for victims.
Lewis was in Puerto Rico earlier last week using FINDER to search for survivors of Hurricane Maria.
Hurricanes are a relatively new use case for the technology, Lewis said: while radar can’t search through water, it’s useful for detecting heartbeats through rooftops.
People trapped in flooded buildings often run to the upper floors.
He said they didn’t find anyone in the day or so that they used FINDER.
“This is one of those instances when we have developed a technology we hope will never be needed,” said DHS Under Secretary (acting) for Science and Technology William N. Bryan.
“But it’s good to know it’s out there when we unfortunately have to use it.”
The technology evolved from JPL’s efforts to develop low-cost small spacecraft radios, and uses signal processing developed to measure small changes in spacecraft motion. FINDER sends a low-powered microwave signal — about one-thousandth of a cell phone’s output — through rubble.
It looks for changes in the reflections of those signals coming back from tiny motions caused by victims’ breathing and heartbeats.
In tests, FINDER has detected heartbeats through 30 feet of rubble or 20 feet of solid concrete.
Both companies work with the direction of local governments when they travel to disaster sites.
How it Works
The sensor detects human beings, hidden from view by enclosed walls or trapped in rubble, by their heartbeats and breathing patterns.
Low-powered microwaves, about 1/1000th of the power generated in a cell phone, are directed towards an intended search area.
The microwaves bounce or reflect off objects (enclosed areas, walls, or rubble) yielding data from vibrations.
This captured information is then analyzed by software algorithms, compares the signal-to-noise ratio of human heartbeats against all other background noise, and provides a final output on whether human life has been located.
The unique thing about a human heartbeat is that the rhythmic beat changes with each breath.
FINDER is used alongside a variety of other techniques, including trained dogs, acoustic sensing devices and thermal imagers. All these techniques are usually deployed together.
Lewis said it’s hard to confirm exactly how many lives the technology has saved in total, since he doesn’t have data from relief teams that have purchased their own units, and it’s often used in conjunction with other methods.