NASA Technology Saved Four Lives in Nepal Earthquake By Detecting Their Heartbeats

DHS/John Price via NASA

NASA’s new radar technology was able to detect the heartbeats of men trapped under 10 feet of rubble due to the devastating 7.8-magnitude Nepalese earthquake. NASA deployed two prototypes of the new search-and-rescue technology, called FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response), which uses microwave-radar to pinpoint faint heartbeats, allowing emergency teams to respond accordingly.

The two prototypes of FINDER are able to locate people buried under 30 feet of rubble, 20 feet of solid concrete and from a distance of 100 feet in open spaces, according to NASA. The device was first developed in 2013 by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and the National Aeronautics Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Researchers added a new locator feature that provides rescue responders with a confirmation of a heartbeat and the approximate locations of trapped victims—dependent on the type of rubble—within five feet.  

"The true test of any technology is how well it works in a real-life operational setting," said Dr. Reginald Brothers, a DHS undersecretary for science and technology, in a statement.

The rescue, which helped save four men trapped under rubble in an earthquake where the death toll nears 8,000, marked the first time FINDER was used in a real-world situation.

"Of course, no one wants disasters to occur, but tools like this are designed to help when our worst nightmares do happen. I am proud that we were able to provide the tools to help rescue these four men," he added.

The men were trapped under rubble for days in the village of Chautara before a contingent of international rescuers arrived with FINDER, where they were able to detect heartbeats beneath two different collapsed structures. The microwave radar technology allows responders to distinguish between human heartbeats and the heartbeats of other living things such as rats. The technology is also sensitive enough to detect both conscious and unconscious victims, allowing emergency response teams to decide the best course of action.

FINDER solidifies NASA’s role in “exploration” and “improving—even saving—the lives of people on Earth,” says Dr. David Miller, NASA's chief technologist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. NASA has also announced FINDER’s transition to commercial enterprise, where the device can be manufactured and used around the world in search-and-rescue missions.

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