In the next large-scale disaster, a new people-finding device could save lives.

Now under development by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., the Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER) device is ready for commercial deployment, JPL Engineer Jim Lux told Government Technology.

Research began following instruction from the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate in April 2012. Disasters like Hurricane Sandy and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake demonstrated a need for technology that would allow first responders to quickly answer a simple question when faced with hundreds of collapsed structures: Are there people in that rubble?

FINDER can detect a human heartbeat buried beneath 30 feet of debris, or behind 20 feet of solid concrete and from distances of up to 100 feet in open space. The latest prototype of the device is the size of a small suitcase and can fit into an overhead bin on a commercial airplane. Turning FINDER on and pointing it at a pile of rubble will tell workers within 30 seconds whether there’s a person inside who needs saving or if the rescuers can move on.

FINDER detects humans by honing in on the one sound that can prove they’re still alive.

“What we’re looking for is the little tiny motions of your body when your heart beats – maybe 1/20th of an inch. Heartbeats are sort of unique,” Lux said. “They happen about once a second. Things that are moving at a different rate we ignore. And that’s how we ignore cats and dogs and rats is their heart rates tend to be a lot higher, and we don’t detect cows because their heart rates are lower.”

And ambient sounds, like flying birds or leaves rustling in the wind, typically are not consistent like a heartbeat, while mechanical sounds -- that occur about once per second -- can easily be filtered out because their timing is too consistent to be mistaken for a heartbeat, Lux said.

FINDER hasn’t saved any lives yet, he added, because there haven’t been any large-scale disasters for a while -- but some licensees are going to begin manufacturing the devices soon so a product may be ready when the next disaster hits. Lux estimated a price point of about $10,000 per unit.

In September of 2013, researchers began testing FINDER around the country by putting it in the hands of first responders, who helped guide user interface design, including putting a light on the outside that would allow workers to find it in the dark and integrating the data with a larger operating picture, Lux said. As emergency responders begin using devices like tablets and embrace sensor technology, integrating all that data into one central location one would be immensely useful, Lux said, and he and his team are now looking at developing along those lines.

Their research will also continue to adapt the device to the needs of smaller, more common operations, like searching for missing children, searching from a moving platform, or searching in an area where people are walking around on the other side of the debris. Researchers are now updating the device to include an option to limit the range of the device to detect, for example, heartbeats that are further than 10 feet away, but closer than 50 feet. Such adjustments will make FINDER more useful outside of large-scale disasters, Lux said, adding that FINDER could also be used to detect people in burning buildings or trapped in storm shelters beneath rubble.

“The commander on the scene has to make that decision about, ‘Do I send someone in, risking their life for somebody who may not be there?’" he said. "FINDER could potentially help with that problem, and that’s something that does happen more often and could be more useful."

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.