Despite this triumph, the experience also exposed weaknesses the company would go on to address. The JPL version of the device had sensors facing in four directions, making it difficult to estimate a victim’s location, so current models look in just one direction at a time. The company also decided that a five-minute lag time for calibration and detection was too long and managed to cut that time in half.
And rescuers in Nepal found that some devastated areas were too difficult to navigate for the device to be put to use. R4 has since begun mounting units on drones and land vehicles.
FINDER has proven capable of detecting humans through 30 feet of dense rubble and up to 100 feet away in the open with 80 percent accuracy. That’s up from the JPL prototype’s 65 percent accuracy.
In its current iteration, it is most useful in confirming suspicions that a live victim may be trapped in a given area, whether the hunch comes from human witnesses or search dogs, says Crockett. But he says the company is working on what he calls “persistent detection”—continuous scanning and detection while the FINDER is in motion, searching for survivors as it passes one heap of rubble after another.
In October 2015, FEMA officially announced it would provide funding to U.S. municipalities that apply to purchase R4’s FINDER units, which are now on the agency’s Authorized Equipment List under the category of “seismic, acoustic, and radar devices and accessories for locating trapped and entombed victims not detectable by other means.”
“This allows first responders to have some type of funding to get these new technologies,” says Lewis, noting that emergency response teams in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, as well as Virginia Task Force 1 and several nonprofit organizations, have expressed interest.
Meanwhile, FINDER’s first official customers are the Army’s Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate and the Quito Fire Department in Ecuador. As the company demonstrates the technology around the country and the world, it has also drawn interest from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Guatemala, Columbia, and Argentina, Crockett says.
While most of these are in quake-prone regions, R4 is working on a security pilot program in the UAE’s capital of Abu Dhabi. Due to the heat, drivers there are allowed dark tint on all windows, so border police are experimenting with using FINDER to determine whether the number of passengers in a vehicle matches the number of passports presented. By charting heart and breathing rates, the devices may also be useful in spotting telltale panic.
“People are coming up with all kinds of ideas for ways we could use it,” Crockett says.
The company has also designed prototype versions that would mount on a remote-controlled octocopter, a pickup truck, and a motorcycle, all to search hard-to-reach areas. Efforts are underway to combine GPS and lidar for accurate, continuous navigation aboard the drone, as well as to combine readings from a hovering drone unit with those from another FINDER on the ground to more precisely triangulate a victim’s position.
Even in its current state, though, FINDER presents a capability never seen before, and one that rescue crews welcome gladly wherever the company brings it, Crockett says. “It’s a one-of-a-kind technology that really does save lives.”
With all the enhancements R4 is making to render FINDER more and more effective across a variety of situations, Crocket says, “The secret sauce is in the algorithms and the specialized sensors that we use.”
That’s the hardware and software rooted at JPL, which continues to act as a strategic partner, for example working with R4 to try to enable distance readings and helping the company get FINDER into testing events and demonstrations, Crockett says.
“They’re still supporting the product, so that’s been a great help to us,” says Lewis.