Rescue Device Can Locate Human Heartbeat In A Pile Of Rubble

[ Watch the Video: NASA Tech Will Hunt For Heartbeats After Disasters ]

Michael Harper for – Your Universe Online

NASA, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has developed a new technology which can detect heartbeats behind 20 feet of solid concrete or 30 feet of crushed material. This radar-based technology will be used in emergency situations where victims are trapped beneath collapsed buildings and other rubble.

The government agencies have been testing prototypes of this device for the last several months, and now they expect the first commercialized model of the product to be available by spring of 2014. Recent improvements in the design include a lightweight core, USB antenna and increased battery life of up to 14 hours.

NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, along with Science and Technology Directorate from the DHS, are calling this device ‘Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response,’ or FINDER. So far they’ve tested the unit in more than 65 simulated disasters with two Urban Search and Rescue Teams: The Virginia Task Force 1 at the Fairfax County Fire Department training center, and the Virginia Task Force 2 in Virginia Beach, Va.

Their goal was to create a tool that these teams could use to find signs of life in catastrophic situations. With this technology, lives could be saved which may have been lost forever underneath the rubble created by a tornado, earthquake or hurricane. The portable radar was able to penetrate concrete, rebar and other materials to distinguish heartbeats several feet away. When out in the open, the unit can detect a human heartbeat up to 100 feet away.

“Testing proved successful in locating a task force member buried in 30 feet of mixed concrete, rebar and gravel rubble from a distance of over 30 feet,” said DHS Science and Technology program manager John Price in a statement.

“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.”

The duo of the DHS and JPL seems to be a good fit in more ways than one. Edward Chow, JPL program manager, said the crushed and mangled material of a disaster presented some challenges for early prototypes of the device. Radar waves shot into the wreckage would bounce around and return irregular signals and, therefore, inaccurate results.

“Isolating the relatively weak signal of a heartbeat within the noisy signals becomes a difficult task,” said Chow. “JPL’s radar expertise helps in this challenge.”

The microwave radar technology isn’t just sensitive enough to distinguish the faint movement and sound of a heartbeat. It’s also smart enough to know if it’s “hearing” a human heartbeat or the heartbeat of some other living thing, such as a rat. These processing systems allow search and rescue operators to quickly understand if any survivors are trapped underneath slabs of concrete and debris and allow them to begin the process of extracting them.

After thorough testing of the earliest prototype, the DHS and JPL team decided to make a few changes to the design to improve the overall functionality of the device. One unit can perform all these tasks, including powering an antenna, a radar unit and digital processing, all with a single USB interface. The team also decided to change the user interface to make it easier to use by search and rescue teams. Future iterations of this device are expected to be even smaller and therefore easier to bring into disaster areas.

The DHS and JPL will demonstrate this new unit at a presentation next Wednesday in Virgina.