This NASA Tech Can Hear Vibrations Across The Galaxy — and Human Heartbeats Under Rubble

Picture the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. People are trapped beneath the rubble of their former homes and workplaces, sometimes knocked unconscious in the collapse. But fortunately, their rescuers have a high-tech piece of equipment to find them — a briefcase-sized machine that is capable of detecting living people through about 9 meters (30 feet) of stone. This isn't a portrait of a hopeful future. FINDER has already saved people in the field.

Hunting for Heartbeats

On April 25, 2015, nearly 9,000 people were killed and 22,000 more injured when Nepal's deadliest earthquake since 1934 destroyed homes, villages, and centuries-old temples across the central region of the country. But as bad as the damage was, the casualties were lessened by the application of a brand-new technology.

Called FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, to its mother), the NASA-developed system emanates a low-power microwave and reads small fluctuations in the frequencies that reflect back to it. In other words, it can hear your heart beating from a double-decker bus away, even if that double-decker bus is lying on top of you. In Chautara, north of Kathmandu, FINDER was able to, well, find four men who had been trapped for days.

FINDER passed its first deployment in the field with flying colors — perhaps because it had already been tested in a completely different field. When NASA developed this technology, they didn't do it with heartbeats in mind.

From Space Probes to Saving Lives

Yeah, you might have heard that there aren't a lot of heartbeats in outer space. But the ability to read tiny irregularities in microwave radiation comes in handy in a lot of different ways. Like figuring out the origin of the universe, for one thing. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has also used this technology to keep a close eye on their spacecraft. But even its newfound purpose as a life-saver is only the beginning.

Some conservationists have called for FINDER to be used to help count and maintain populations of wild rhinoceroses, which can be difficult to find in the tall grass. And Jim Lux, the head of the project, says that's perfectly possible. "We need to go to a zoo and make some measurements of rhino heartbeats."

Finding Heartbeats in Rubble

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 12, 2017

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