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PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are
collaborating on a first-of-its-kind portable radar device to detect the
heartbeats and breathing patterns of victims trapped in large piles of rubble
resulting from a disaster.
The prototype technology, called Finding Individuals for Disaster and
Emergency Response (FINDER) can locate individuals buried as deep as 30 feet
(about 9 meters) in crushed materials, hidden behind 20 feet (about 6 meters) of
solid concrete, and from a distance of 100 feet (about 30 meters) in open
Developed in conjunction with Homeland Security's Science and Technology
Directorate, FINDER is based on remote-sensing radar technology developed by
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to monitor the location of
spacecraft JPL manages for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
"FINDER is bringing NASA technology that explores other planets to the effort
to save lives on ours," said Mason Peck, chief technologist for NASA and
principal advisor on technology policy and programs. "This is a prime example of
intergovernmental collaboration and expertise that has a direct benefit to the
The technology was demonstrated to the media today at the DHS's Virginia Task
Force 1 Training Facility in Lorton, Va. Media participated in demonstrations
that featured the device locating volunteers hiding under heaps of debris.
FINDER also will be tested further by the Federal Emergency Management Agency
this year and next.
"The ultimate goal of FINDER is to help emergency responders efficiently
rescue victims of disasters," said John Price, program manager for the First
Responders Group in Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate in
Washington. "The technology has the potential to quickly identify the presence
of living victims, allowing rescue workers to more precisely deploy their
The technology works by beaming microwave radar signals into the piles of
debris and analyzing the patterns of signals that bounce back. NASA's Deep Space
Network regularly uses similar radar technology to locate spacecraft. A light
wave is sent to a spacecraft, and the time it takes for the signal to get back
reveals how far away the spacecraft is. This technique is used for science
research, too. For example, the Deep Space Network monitors the location of the
Cassini mission's orbit around Saturn to learn about the ringed planet's
"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," said James Lux, task
manager for FINDER at JPL.
In disaster scenarios, the use of radar signals can be particularly complex.
Earthquakes and tornadoes produce twisted and shattered wreckage, such that any
radar signals bouncing back from these piles are tangled and hard to decipher.
JPL's expertise in data processing helped with this challenge. Advanced
algorithms isolate the tiny signals from a person's moving chest by filtering
out other signals, such as those from moving trees and animals.
Similar technology has potential applications in NASA's future human missions
to space habitats. The astronauts' vital signs could be monitored without the
need for wires.
The Deep Space Network, managed by JPL, is an international network of
antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar
astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe.
The network also supports selected Earth-orbiting missions.