NASA radar device detects heartbeats in disaster rubble

NASA is collaborating with the US Department of Homeland Security on a portable radar device that can detect heartbeats and breathing after a disaster.

Finder at work
The Finder unit during a test. DHS/John Price

When a disaster strikes, there's a very short window of time in which to locate and free survivors trapped under rubble. The Finder portable radar system, developed through a collaboration between NASA and the US Department of Homeland Security, could make it much easier for emergency responders to find victims.

"Finder" is short for "Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response." The device works by sending a low-power microwave radar signal through the rubble. The signals that bounce back are analyzed for patterns that indicate a person's breathing or heartbeat.

The technology is related to radar systems NASA uses to locate spacecraft on their missions. "Detecting small motions from the victim's heartbeat and breathing from a distance uses the same kind of signal processing as detecting the small changes in motion of spacecraft like Cassini as it orbits Saturn," says James Lux, the Finder task manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.

The heavy lifting for this technology is done on the data processing side. It takes advanced algorithms to differentiate between a human's chest moving versus a rat scurrying, or a plant's leaves waving.

Finder can see through up to 20 feet of solid concrete. The device has been in testing for about a year. The whole unit weighs less than 20 pounds and could be useful for a variety of disaster scenarios, from tornadoes to earthquakes.

Locating disaster victims is Finder's first purpose, but NASA is looking ahead at potential uses in space. The system could be adapted to monitor astronauts without the need for wires. Meanwhile, on Earth, the technology could be ready and available for wider use by spring of 2014.

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