DHS, NASA team up to develop ‘Holy Grail’ of search and rescue

A big breakthrough in disaster response is coming from an unlikely partnership in government.

The Homeland Security Department and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are close to releasing a new technology called Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER).

“It might be the biggest advance in urban search and rescue in the last 30 years,” said John Price, deputy director of the Office for Interoperablity and Compatibility in the First Responders Group at DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate.

Price told In Depth with Francis Rose that FINDER is an example of a federal government partnership that works.

He said JPL scientists typically develop technologies and then look for appropriate applications around the government or in the private sector.

In the case of FINDER, the 28 Urban Search and Rescue teams within DHS’ Federal Emergency Management Agency were looking for a new technology to help them find people trapped within collapsed buildings and other debris.

“They [FEMA] actually referred to it as the ‘Holy Grail of Search and Rescue,'” Price said. “They’d be able to walk down any given street where a disaster has taken place and go ahead and look at any given building or pile of rubble and say, ‘Yeah, there’s somebody alive in there.’ Or, ‘There’s nobody alive in there.’ That way, they can go ahead and better use their limited rescue technologies and rescue first responders and save the live people and get them out as rapidly as possible.”

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Price began working with JPL a few years ago on other projects and a good working relationship soon blossomed. FINDER grew out of technology JPL had already developed to measure small changes in the ocean level and to help NASA measure how far the Cassini spacecraft was orbiting around Saturn.

“These same sorts of measuring distances — very precisely from a long way away — is very similar to what we’re doing here with FINDER, where we’re penetrating the rubble at maybe 20, 30 meters deep, looking for 1 millimeter of movement from a heartbeat,” said Jim Lux, engineering manager at JPL. “That’s how we moved these algorhythms from the space area down to saving lives here on Earth.”

FINDER uses low-powered microwaves, about 1/100th of the power used by a cellphone, to detect breathing and the heartbeat of a person buried in rubble.

“We do that by shining a very low-powered microwave signal onto the rubble pile,” Lux said. “It sort of illuminates it like a floodlight. We look at the reflections coming back. The microwaves go into rubble and, eventually, they reflect off of the victim and then they come back. What we see at the FINDER is a combination of the unchanging reflection of the rocks, which don’t move, and the very small changes due to the person who is moving.”

FINDER analyzes those readings and filters out those that don’t match readings generated by a human.

“That’s the process by which FINDER detects the victims,” Lux said. “We don’t actually locate it. We just detect that there’s a victim in there.”

JPL began working on FINDER in July 2012. “We started building our first prototype in January of this year,” Lux said, during a Sept. 23 demonstration at a search and rescue training facility in Lorton, Va. “We brought it out here to this test facility in April for some tests. We got some critical comments from first responders, which were painful to hear but were good to us in the long run because we were able to incorporate that into the next revision.”

The JPL returned to Lorton with its next prototype in June for more tests.

“Now we’re out here today with this latest prototype which is basically completed and we’re ready to translate it to a commercial reality, so that, hopefully, FINDERs will be available early next year for rescue purposes and saving lives,” Lux said.

Several companies have already expressed an interest in marketing the technology to the private sector.

“The FINDER device is a great partnership between the Jet Propulsion Lab and the Department of Homeland Security,” said Mason Peck, NASA’s chief technologist. “JPL science led to the basics here and DHS helped us understand how to apply it. … It’s obviously very gratifying to see that some of our more abstract science can have a very down-to-earth specific benefit for the people. It’s a very exciting aspect of this work.”

If all goes as planned, JPL’s final prototype will be transitioned to FEMA by the end of the year.

“We have commercial partners that we’re starting to work with,” Price said. “JPL is going to license the product itself, the technology. In the spring or early summer, I see FINDER tools in the open market.”