NASA's FINDER Device Detects Heartbeats Buried Under Rubble In Search-And-Rescue Operations

By Josh Lieberman on September 18, 2013 11:43 AM EDT

moore ok
NASA's FINDER radar system can detect heartbeats under as much as 30 feet of rubble. The Department of Homeland Security requested use of the device to search through rubble in the aftermath of the Moore, Okla., tornado in May (above), but the system wasn't yet ready. (Photo: Reuters)

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has created a device that can detect a heartbeat under 30 feet of rubble, something they hope will aid in search-and-rescue missions following disasters. The portable radar system, called the Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, or FINDER, is even able to determine whether a heartbeat buried under the rubble belongs to a human being, and not creatures like rats.

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"People have done this for a while," NASA JPL's Jim Lux told The Atlantic. "There are products that look for sleep apnea in infants, and there's been people who have built laboratory systems that can detect heartbeats but have to be moved into the field for an experiment."

But the device that Lux and NASA have created is different from past heartbeat-detection devices for a number of reasons. FINDER is roughly the size of a carry-on suitcase, so it's highly portable. The device is operated via a tablet, and a layman can learn to use the system in about five minutes.

"The basic underlying technique has been around for decades. Technology from the wireless industry made it small and cheap. The processing power made the software possible," said Lux. 

In a clip-art-heavy graphic, NASA describes the way FINDER works. The device illuminates a pile of rubble "like a bright searchlight." Radar reflections are beamed back at FINDER, which looks for tiny changes in reflection to determine if an object is moving. FINDER can distinguish between the heartbeat and breathing patterns of a human versus an animal.

John Price, a program manager from the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, which worked on FINDER in conjunction with NASA JPL, noted that the device isn't meant to replace existing search-and-rescue technology.  

"This capability will complement the current Urban Search and Rescue tools such as canines, listening devices, and video cameras to detect the presence of living victims in rubble," said Price.

The federal government is currently looking for a manufacturer for FINDER. The device should be commercially available in the Spring of 2014 for about $10,000.

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