The VICE Channels

    NASA's New FINDER Scans for Breathing Bodies in Disaster Rubble

    Written by

    Daniel Stuckey


    Video via NASA

    The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami two years ago killed several thousand people, and left close to few thousand missing. The numbers of dislocated people felt, to anyone watching, an immeasurable number. If only there were a rapid way, when driving through the vast areas of devastation, to know where someone in need may be lying—trapped beneath some debris. NASA now has a new device, called FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response), which could be the next player in hastening the response time in such grim scenarios.

    Although dogs have aided emergency responders for decades, a pooch relies on its sniffer in emergency situations. FINDER, on the other hand, uses microwaves in a Doppler-like fashion to sense respiration and pulse. The lightweight briefcase, as displayed in the video above, was developed for the Department of Homeland Security with remote-sensing radar technology NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab uses to locate spacecraft in flight. The unit includes a tablet, on which a hidden person's vitals are then displayed.

    In mass casualty and natural disaster events, devices like FINDER could overhaul response protocols and locate victims within the "golden hour," during which finding a victim greatly increases survival rates. The unit can locate a person up to 30 feet deep in rubble, up to 20 feet behind solid concrete, and up to 100 feet away in open space.

    The tool is slated to for tests by FEMA later this year and in 2014. "The ultimate goal of FINDER is to help emergency responders efficiently rescue victims of disasters," said John Price, of the First Responders Group in Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, in a statement. "The technology has the potential to quickly identify the presence of living victims, allowing rescue workers to more precisely deploy their limited resources."

    As projects like FINDER are added to an emergency responder's toolkit, it hopefully quickens response times, but won't be any end to the classic role of dogs and choppers. While the JPL team is developing algorithms to block out interference caused by everything from plant life to animals, the tech still has a lot of testing to go through.

    If anything, it'll be supplemental, and inevitably, it seems FINDER will be more embedded in regular emergency and security infrastructures. It's easy to imagine it integrated in the HUD of a responder's vehicle, tracing the vitals of everyone within a certain radius. In fact, NASA is already discussing using the tech to wirelessly monitor the health of its astronauts in the future. And, as the agency is quick to point out, if it's good enough to work in space, it'll probably do well here on Earth.