Environment & Science

JPL technology helps find Nepal quake survivors in rubble

A member of police forces walks down a street covered in debris after buildings collapsed on April 26, 2015 in Bhaktapur, Nepal.
A member of police forces walks down a street covered in debris after buildings collapsed on April 26, 2015 in Bhaktapur, Nepal.
Omar Havana/Getty Images

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Technology invented to monitor distant space probes is now being used in Nepal to locate people trapped under collapsed buildings in the wake of last month's 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

The device, called FINDER, was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and has so far helped save four people.

"It worked and it saved lives," said Jim Lux, task manager for the FINDER project.

FINDER, which stands for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, can detect human heartbeats through 30 feet of rubble or 20 feet of solid concrete.

The system travels in a case the size of an airplane carry-on suitcase and weighs just under 20 pounds.

Inside the case is a laptop that sends out a low powered microwave signal that penetrates rubble.

Jim Lux says that microwave signal is then reflected back to the computer and analyzed for signs of movement.

"Then what we do is start looking for motion that looks like human heartbeats," Lux explained.

The computer also spots subtle movement associated with breathing.

By comparing the two signals, it can differentiate between trapped humans and trapped animals or mechanical objects like clocks.

FINDER was a prototype when it was deployed to Nepal.

Still, Lux said it was thoroughly tested in realistic scenarios prior to last month's 7.8-magnitude quake.

Lux said it was purely coincidence that someone working with the device was able to bring it quickly to Nepal and meet up with rescue teams there.

"It was very much being in the right place at the right time," JPL's Lux said.

The technology is derived from NASA equipment used to detect the movement of space probes around planets like Jupiter.

Lux says a manufacturer is working on mass producing FINDER so that first responders around the world can use it. A single device will cost between $10,000  and $20,000.