Shortly after an EF5 tornado flattened Moore, Oklahoma, this past May, the Department of Homeland Security called Jim Lux at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. "We were asked to come out with our machine," Lux says. The machine in question unfortunately wasn't ready. It will be next time.
Short for "Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response," NASA's FINDER is a prototype portable radar system, small enough and light enough to be carried by a single person, and powerful enough to detect a heartbeat under 30 feet of rubble. Assuming the federal government contracts with a manufacturer in a timely manner, first responders at the local and state level should be able to buy FINDERs starting in spring 2014 for about $10,000 each.
"People have done this for a while," Lux says of radar technology that can detect heartbeats and breathing. "There are products that look for sleep apnea in infants, and there’s been people who have built laboratory systems that can detect heartbeats but have to be moved into the field for an experiment." The difference between previous life-detecting radar technology and FINDER is like the difference between the first super computer and an iPhone: ease of use.