A revolutionary radar device that can detect the heartbeats and breathing patterns of disaster victims trapped under rubble has been developed by NASA in conjunction with the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Aptly named Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER), the radar technology has the ability to locate individuals buried as deep as 9 meters and from a distance of 30 meters, according to NASA.

The FINDER team unveiled the technology on September 25 at a demonstration for members of the media at the DHS Virginia Task Force 1 Training Facility in Lorton, Virginia.

Time is of the essence in the civilian response world, in which there is a limited time following a traumatic event when a victim’s odds of survival are highest. This time, called the Golden Hour, can range anywhere from minutes to a few hours. When finding the victims in need of rescue is its own challenge, FINDER can help.

“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 device works by sending out a continuous, low powered microwave radar signal into the rubble, through which reflection patterns are analyzed and human life is detected.

FINDER utilizes the space technology used in remote sensing of the Earth and spacecraft detection in order to ensure that those trapped in rubble have the greatest chance of survival following a disaster.

“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 the Sun” said James Lux, task manager for FINDER at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

An outgrowth of NASA’s remote sensing technology, FINDER analyzes radar signals using advanced data processing algorithms developed by JPL. Within the chaotic, post-disaster environment this technology can distinguish the tiny signals from a person’s moving chest from the surrounding signals such as moving trees and animals nearby.

This technology has potential applications in NASA’s future human space flight missions, reducing the need for wires when monitoring astronauts’ vital signs.

Weighing less than 20 pounds, the device looks like a plastic briefcase and fits in the overhead compartment of aircraft.  Testing has been in progress for a year and its predicted commercial release is as soon as the spring of 2014.

Future developmental phases of FINDER will focus on a more specific locater function that can detect not only the existence of a victim but more precisely where in the rubble the person is located.

John Price, program manager from the DHS’ First Responders Group called FINDER “probably the greatest advance in the last 30 years.”

Watch video from the FINDER test, below:

Embedded video from

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology

Image caption: The suitcase-sized FINDER uses radar to discover disaster victims (Credits: NASA).


About the author

Nikita Marwaha

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Nikita is from London and works in Science Communication. Her interests lie in the progression of human spaceflight, creative communication, social media and scientific research in space. She is an International Space University (ISU) Masters & SSP alum and has a Bachelors degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Birmingham. Nikita is an enthusiastic writer and has a penchant for travelling and dessert. She updates her blog regularly at: www.makingapplepiefromscratch.com

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