Four men have been rescued from collapsed buildings in Chautara following Nepal’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake thanks to a NASA technology that detected their heartbeats through 10 feet of debris. FINDER, which stands for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, is a small, suitcase-sized device that sends out a low-powered microwave signal. Tiny motions caused by the victim’s breathing and heartbeats change the reflected signal, and these changes can be picked up by FINDER and used to hone in on their location. Unlike many traditional rescue tools, FINDER does not require the victim to be conscious, only that they still have a heartbeat. Two FINDER prototypes were sent to Nepal with an international search and rescue team. In tests, FINDER had detected heartbeats through 30 feet of rubble or 20 feet of solid concrete, but this was the first time the technology was used in a real life disaster.
The technology behind FINDER was originally developed to locate planets outside of our solar system by NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory, and the accompanying software detects small motions using algorithms similar to those used to measure the orbits of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Some think that such “advanced sensing technology” may one day be used to detect life on other planets. In the meantime, there are plenty of organisations keen to develop FINDER for terrestrial applications.
FINDER displays heart and respiration rates, and can distinguish between the heartbeats of a human and those of animals or mechanical devices. This means there are a large range of possible applications for the technology. The team hopes to combine FINDER with robotics and even small autonomous flying vehicles. Such vehicles could be used to get closer to victims in unstable structures or to monitor someone with a highly contagious disease, such as Ebola, without requiring first responders to physically touch the patient. “We’ve had countless people ask us for different applications,” said James Lux, task manager for the FINDER project. “One of the more unusual was whether FINDER could detect rhinoceroses hidden in bushes for the purpose of protecting them. We haven’t tried it for that, but in principle, it should work.”
NASA regularly comes under fire for being a ridiculously expensive way to find out mildly interesting things. It’s worth remembering that NASA technologies such as firefighting gear, water purification devices, and scratch resistant lenses make our lives easier every day. As David Miller, NASA’s chief technologist at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C., says “FINDER exemplifies how technology designed for space exploration has profound impacts to life on Earth.”
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Grand as all this is, I can’t help but think drones with pulse detectors could be dangerous in the wrong hands.