Cutting-Edge Radar to Help Save Victims Beneath the Rubble

By Kristen Rodman, Staff Writer
April 30, 2014; 5:00 AM
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Jimmy Hodges helps Chad Heltcel and his wife Cassidi salvage the wreckage of Chad Heltcel's family home, which was destroyed Monday when a tornado moved through Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 21, 2013. See larger image below. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

After a number of massive natural disasters in recent years, search and rescue teams sought out a new technology that would aid in saving victims from the rubble, and they've found it.

A team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, in Pasadena, Calif., have developed an advanced radar known as FINDER, or Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, designed to detect survivors buried under collapsed structures.

"There is a general need for what they call the holy grail in search and rescue, to detect buried victims quickly because time is lives," JPL's Task Manager of FINDER Jim Lux said.

Inspired by a class of mass disasters including the Haiti earthquake and the Moore, Okla., tornado, the radar system was originally made with the goal of searching a house-sized collapsed structure in 15 minutes. However, the system proved after testing to be much faster.

Jimmy Hodges helps Chad Heltcel and his wife Cassidi salvage the wreckage of Chad Heltcel's family home, which was destroyed Monday when a tornado moved through Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

"Turns out we can actually go faster," Lux said. "About two minutes for one search."

The device works by using a microwave signal to illuminate the rubble and search for moving reflections. These active reflections show a buried victim.

"Reflections from the rubble don't move, but the reflections from the buried victims move because when you breathe and your heart beats, your body moves a little bit," Lux said.

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Due to the radar's detection of heartbeats instead of sounds, victims do not have to be responsive or conscious to be seen.

"The search techniques rely a lot on listening and listening to the victim for tapping or yelling, whereas we can detect the heartbeat," Lux said. "If there is a heartbeat, they are there."

The system is currently undergoing extensive testing in Virginia, as the research team tries to figure out what the best, most effective way to use the FINDER is.

To date the radar has been tested in multi-story collapse simulations to determine its sensitivity, in open fields to help understand how far away it can be effectively used and in various elements such as mud and rain.

Virginia Task Force 1 team members demonstrate the prototype technology called Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER) at the team's training facility, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in Lorton, Va. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

With the original design, the team faced multiple challenges including developing the prototypes within less than a year, learning the ins and outs of how search and rescue operations and figuring out how to differentiate between an operator's heartbeat and a victim's.

"We started a little over a year ago. The Department of Homeland Security wanted an 80 percent solution in a year and a perfect solution in five years."

Changes have also since been made to the initial design to increase the device's ability to aid search and rescue teams. For example, a GPS was added, as well as a camera, to help emergency crews remember what locations they had previously searched.

Working with search and rescue teams, the JPL staff modeled FINDER not to replace the teams but instead to strengthen their weaknesses.

"Our technique is sort of complementary; it does things that the dogs and microphones don't and they do things that we don't," Lux said.

While FINDER is not expected to be on the market until the summer of 2014, already researchers at JPL are looking to expand its uses for other disaster scenarios with the hope of using it in a post-avalanche situation.

Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kristen Rodman at, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Kristen or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.


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