NASA’s FINDER Search and Rescue Technology Helps Save Lives

The Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER) prototype technology can locate individuals buried under rubble in disaster scenarios. This photo is from a previous test. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/DHS


By Elizabeth Landau, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

When you think of NASA, chances are you envision space. But that’s not the only place the agency makes technology for.

In the wreckage of a collapsed textile factory and another building in the Nepalese village of Chautara two years ago, four men were rescued, thanks to a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate technology that was able to find their heartbeats.

A small, suitcase-sized device called FINDER helped uncover these survivors — two from each destroyed building — in one of the hardest-hit areas of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled Nepal in April 2015. The technology detected the men’s presence even though they were buried under about 10 feet of brick, mud, wood and other debris.

The FINDER device is operated using a hand-held device, such as a laptop, running the FINDER software. The user can specify a minimum and maximum range for detecting heartbeats in the vicinity.

FINDER, which stands for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, is a collaboration between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate in Washington.

“The true test of any technology is how well it works in a real-life operational setting,” said former DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology Reginald Brothers said at the time. “Of course, no one wants disasters to occur, but tools like this are designed to help when our worst nightmares do happen. I am proud that we were able to provide the tools to help rescue these four men.”

The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, which manages JPL for NASA, licensed a version of the technology to R4 Incorporated, Edgewood, Maryland. R4 took FINDER to Nepal to assist with relief efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake. David Lewis, the company’s president, brought two protoypes to Nepal and joined an international contingent of search and rescue personnel, which helped find the four men in Chautara.

“It’s very gratifying to have a piece of technology that we developed at JPL out in the field helping to save lives,” said James Lux, task manager for the FINDER project at JPL.

In natural disasters such as earthquakes and avalanches, timing is everything. The faster victims can be found, rescued and taken to safety and medical care, the more likely they are to survive. “FINDER is a tool that complements the other search methods, like canines, listening devices and cameras, used by first responders,” Lux said. “It provides another item in the toolbox for search and rescue.”

FINDER sends a low-powered microwave signal – about one-thousandth of a cell phone’s output — through rubble and 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.

A rescue worker with FINDER, using a rugged laptop running the FINDER software, can specify a minimum and maximum range for detecting heartbeats in the vicinity. The program identifies whether the signal is stronger from the left or right as well, to further home in on victims’ locations. The FINDER device weighs less than 20 pounds, so it can easily be transported by car or plane.

FINDER detects the small motions using algorithms similar to those that JPL uses to measure the orbits of satellites at Jupiter and Saturn, or changes in Earth’s surface from orbiting satellites. It then displays the detected heart and respiration rates and a reliability score. FINDER’s software can distinguish between the heartbeats of a human and those of animals or mechanical devices.

“NASA technology plays many roles: driving exploration, protecting the lives of our astronauts and improving — even saving — the lives of people on Earth,” said David Miller, NASA’s chief technologist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “FINDER exemplifies how technology designed for space exploration has profound impacts to life on Earth.”

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