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NASA's spaceship-finding, heartbeat-tracking radar could help find buried disaster victims

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The radar NASA uses to explore planets or monitor the location of a spacecraft could also help first responders find survivors of hurricanes and earthquakes. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Department of Homeland Security have announced Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER), a device that the agencies say can detect people buried deep in rubble. FINDER, which is about the size of a large carry-on suitcase, is a combination of the actual microwave radar technology and sophisticated software that can sort through the noise. After using the radar to beam through collapsed metal or wood, the box filters the signal, looking for tiny variations that could indicate a beating heart or breathing.

Radar systems are already used to check rubble for survivors. But FINDER's creators hope it could lower the barrier to access. "This will help a lot of the smaller teams, local fire rescue people," says the Department of Homeland Security's John Price, describing a devastating tornado earlier this year in Moore, Oklahoma. "The only people there may be an engine crew. But it's a big help to them if they can go ahead and know that there is somebody there." In tests, the prototype can find people buried under 30 feet of rubble, stuck behind 20 feet of concrete, and located 100 feet away in open spaces.

What's next? The Department of Homeland Security has said that it plans to slowly turn FINDER into a commercial technology, which could be used as soon as spring of next year. For now, FEMA will continue to test the system, and researchers have been working on refining the prototypes, so they can find not only whether a survivor is alive but where they are.