Jim Lux is task manager on FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response), a portable radar device that detects heartbeats and breathing of victims trapped under rubble in a disaster.

NASA Tech Briefs: What is FINDER?

Jim Lux: FINDER is a radar that detects the heartbeats and breathing of victims that are buried in disaster rubble, like from an earthquake or from a large hurricane.

NTB: Technologically, what does it look like?

Jim Lux: Right now, the prototype is a carry-on-baggage style case with a ruggedized laptop, which we use to control it. The batteries and the radars are all over the carry-on case, and the user stands back a bit with the laptop and controls it.

NTB: How is it able to detect heartbeats and breathing?

Lux: FINDER looks for the very small motions of the chest and the body from respiration and heartbeats. Your chest moves about a centimeter from breathing and about a millimeter from the heartbeat, and even parts of the top of your head move, from superficial veins flowing and draining. We look for those very small changes in the distance to the target. The rubble’s not changing. It’s stationary, and so if the victim is moving, then we can detect that by subtracting out all the un-moving stuff.

NTB: From how far away will FINDER be able to detect signals?

Lux: FINDER can detect people tens of meters away. We’ve done tests at a site in northern Virginia and at other places, where we’ve detected victims that are in simulated rubble that are as far away as 40 feet. In open forest, it’s about 100 feet. Through solid stacks of concrete, it’s about 20 feet. It might work farther. It’s just the farthest we’ve tested.

NTB: How did this come about?

Lux: FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the Department of Homeland Security went to the Department of Homeland Security, and Science and Technology Directorate, and said “We need a solution for mass casualty events, like Haiti or Sandy, where we need to be able to rapidly examine lots of collapsed structures to see if there’s a victim inside there so we can bring in the secondary team to actually locate them and rescue them.” Then the Science and Technology Directorate talked to JPL [about available technology]. We have worked with microwave detection of heartbeats for some number of years, and so we thought that we could take the technology for the heartbeat detection and combine it with the algorithms we used to detect signals and noise, and put together a first-responder-suitable package.

NTB: What technologies is FINDER based off of?

Jim Lux: It’s a combination of a variety of technologies, specifically the basic detection of heartbeats with microwaves. It has been done for a lot of years by a lot of people. It’s also similar to the techniques we use to detect the small changes in motion of a spacecraft around another planet to measure the gravity field, or just to navigate the spacecraft in deep space. We look at very small changes in motion from a billion kilometers away.

NTB: Can this tool also help in future NASA missions as well?

Lux: Certainly, it could. One of the challenges for instruments: If you think about astronauts, they’re in a large space station, floating out in the middle of the room. You don’t want to have to have wires attached to them to monitor their heart. So this gives you a way to monitor the heartbeat of astronauts that are floating in free space. It also has a lot of other related applications, just where you might want to monitor vital signs without actually having to make physical contact with the subject. An ambulance would be a good example. If someone has been in an accident, and you want to measure their heartbeat and respiration, and you don’t want to have to cut their clothes off and put electrodes on, this works really well for that.

NTB: How are you able to bring a tool used mainly in space to disaster scenarios?

Lux: Probably the most significant difference is the rapidity with which we were able to put this together. A typical space mission has a very long lifecycle of years, if not a decade. So in this, we turned it around and started in April 2012, and we had our first prototype being tested a year later. Then, we had the unit we just demonstrated in September, which is almost a final product. So that’s one of the biggest differences between the space world and the terrestrial world, if you will. The other difference is the reliability aspects. When you send something into space, you can’t get it back to fix it, so that means we can use components and designs that might not be acceptable in a space application, because you can always send it back and get it repaired.

NTB: What were your biggest technical challenges?

Lux: I think the biggest challenge was putting together a team that could do this in the short time that we had to do it. The basic pieces of the technology all existed in different places, so it’s a matter of getting all the technologies and recasting them to this specific application; that required a multidisciplinary approach. We had people who did the antennas, people who do radio frequency design, people who developed the software, people who developed the user interface, and then things like packaging. We had to make it all fit in a box that could fit in an overhead compartment.

NTB: How big was the team you were working with?

Lux: We’ve had six people on our FINDER team, not all full-time, because at Jet Propulsion Lab, we all work on lots of different projects and across six disciplines. We basically had one person in each of the disciplines doing what they needed to do.

NTB: And what was your specific job with FINDER?

Lux: I’m the designer of the general approach, and my job was to take the general ideas and find people to work on them, and then work through all the problems of getting it put together into an integrated system.

NTB: What stage is the device at now?

Lux: FINDER is at the ready-for-commercialization step. One of the things that Department of Homeland Security was interested in was that FINDER would be in first responders’ hands within a year. We are at the stage currently where we are talking to a number of companies who make things like this or who sell products to the first responder community to get them to pick it up and manufacture it and put it in first responders’ hands so they can start saving lives with it.

NTB: Why is this tool essential? And where do you see this being used first in the real world?

Lux: The tool is essential because it saves lives. We see the first applications being in connection with the search-and-rescue teams, which respond to large-scale disasters. Rural Oklahoma had a tornado come through and there was lots of debris there. To be able to put one of these on every three-person engine, responders can then go out and tell, “Is there someone in that pile or can I move on to the next one?” That would be very useful. So we see it rapidly rolling out to the larger first-responder community. There are international uses, too. Certainly, we’ve received requests to deploy FINDER to other countries even before it was done.

NTB: What's next that you’re working on?

Lux: The next thing for me is to continue working on FINDER. We’re going to be adding some features that have been requested by the first responders who used it, for instance a course/coarse locator feature. Once we have a heartbeat detection system, there are a lot of potential applications for it.

I’m also the principal investigator for a software-defined radio platform that’s on International Space Station, so I have work to do there, too.

NTB: What is the course locator you mentioned?

Lux: We have what’s called a locate feature on FINDER, which will find a right time just to test whether there’s a victim in front of it. Locate will give you a general idea of how far way it is, and where the victims are in a sort of left/right sense. Rubble is very complex from a microwave standpoint. So it’s not like we’ll ever have a radar display that says “Dig Here.” It will be useful to say, “Go to the left. Go to the right.”

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2013 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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