Heartbeat Detector May Save Lives After Disasters

TECHNOLOGY

Researchers have developed a device the size of a small carry-on bag that uses microwaves to detect human heartbeats in piles of rubble, which can bury people following natural hazards such as earthquakes. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to understand how technology can help save lives.

A search-and-rescue team searches for bodies in the wreckage of the 2011 tsunami in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. A new device uses microwave technology to detect heartbeats amid the rubble. The dogs are more precise than the device, however. "The dogs are useful because they can go and find exactly where that person is. If there's no one in that pile, we can save the [dog's energy] for another area where someone actually is," says John Price, a program manager in the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate.  Photograph by Michael S. Yamashita, National Geographic

A search-and-rescue team searches for bodies in the wreckage of the 2011 tsunami in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. A new device uses microwave technology to detect heartbeats amid the rubble. The dogs are more precise than the device, however. “The dogs are useful because they can go and find exactly where that person is. If there’s no one in that pile, we can save the [dog's energy] for another area where someone actually is,” says John Price, a program manager in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate.
Photograph by Michael S. Yamashita, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • Watch the video of our Emerging Explorer Patrick Meier, a “crisis mapper” who helps create real-time maps that help local disaster relief. How could crisis mapping technology work with the high-tech microwave device profiled in the NG News article?
    • Crisis mapping is a “big-picture” program that identifies where and how people are in need in crisis situations. Using social media, texting, and other technology, crisis mappers can help assess a situation from thousands of kilometers away.

The new heartbeat-detector complements such mapping and GIS technology. It is a portable device that can be taken to areas identified by crisis mappers as sites where people may be trapped in rubble. The detector can narrow the search, saving valuable time. (Detector dogs can narrow the search even further, identifying exactly where a person is in the rubble.)

  • Review the NG News article. What are some advantages the new heartbeat-detector may offer emergency responders during a disaster?
    • The detector can quickly identify where people are still alive and trapped in rubble. In many situations, trapped victims are injured or deprived of oxygen. Being able to locate them quickly can save lives.
    • The detector is portable, running on batteries and weighing only 9 kilograms (20 pounds). Because it is relatively light and does not need to be plugged in, the device can be easily transported to areas in greatest need.
    • The detector’s batteries last a long time. The batteries last the typical length of an emergency responder’s shift, about 12 to 14 hours. “These things can run seven days a week, 24 hours a day—you just need to feed it batteries,” says John Price, a program manager in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate.
  • Review the NG News article. What aspects of the heartbeat-detector may prevent its widespread use in disasters around the world?
    • It’s expensive. Each device costs about $10,000. This is a modest fee for emergency response technology in the U.S., but may be an obstacle for aid agencies in developing nations such as Haiti.
    • It uses lithium batteries, one of the most expensive types of batteries on the market. Emergency responders need access to a substantial supply of lithium batteries, as well as a safe landfill or recycling facilities in which to dispose of the used material.
  • Read the final section in the NG News article, “Beyond Disasters.” The writer suggests the heartbeat-detector could be used to find missing children, monitor a patient’s heart rate, or help with a species inventory. Can you think of any other uses for the device?
    • As far as species inventories, it would be an awesome tool for BioBlitz!
    • The article mentions earthquakes, but the devices could also be a crucial, life-saving tool after an avalanche, landslide, or tornado.
    • Heartbeat monitors could also help keep track of prisoners . . . or students.
    • It would take all the fun out of any game of hide-and-seek.
    • ?

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