Search teams used drones, sonar, highly sensitive microphones, and a host of other new and established technologies to search for people in the oceanfront condo building near Miami that collapsed into a smoldering heap of rubble.
Will any of this help?
About 160 people were still missing for Friday amid fears the death toll of at least four could be much higher.
WHICH TECHNOLOGIES HAVE BEEN PROVEN WITH SUCH COOLS?
The most common and proven technologies used to locate survivors in ruins are acoustic detection and detection dogs.
Airborne drones equipped with cameras and other sensors can be useful for closely investigating the collapse, especially in the early stages of a search to help rescue workers know where they are safe. Data from smartphones and telecommunications providers can reveal if a missing person was nearby – and cell phone detection devices can pick up signals from a phone as long as it’s not destroyed.
Joana Gaia, a professor of management science and systems at the University of Buffalo, said search teams use radar and microwaves, which can ricochet off objects and identify people and objects. She said it was similar to the technology in cars that beeps when you are about to reset something.
This can be more useful than cell phone geolocation, especially when speed matters. In the event of a disaster, data is only useful if it can be interpreted quickly.
“The responders work on speed rather than accuracy,” she said. “They think, ‘If I think there’s a corpse, I don’t care how accurate the signal is, I’ll just try to save the person.'”
WHAT ARE MIAMI RESCUERS USING NOW?
Search and rescue teams worked all night hoping to discover any sounds made by survivors.
In search of signs of life in a former wing of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, the crews, which include around 130 firefighters in teams, approach the pile from above and below.
They said they use sonar, cameras, and sensitive microphones. However, microphones do not pick up calls for help when a trapped, invisible victim is unconscious but alive because there will be none.
Neighboring communities have shared their drones, and at least one company is sending a ground robot from California to help with the search while crews work to tunnel under the building.
“Once you get into this subterranean area, ground robotics become incredibly useful,” said David Proulx, vice president of unmanned systems at Teledyne FLIR, a defense company specializing in thermal sensing. “It can safely go where people cannot.”
DO YOU STILL USE DOGS TO PROTECT SURVIVORS?
Search and rescue operations use two types of dogs in disaster locations, both of which are trained to recognize human scent, said Mark Neveau, a former FEMA presidential envoy and disaster expert. First, there are dogs that are trained to pick up the scent of living bodies, but as the operation turns into a salvage operation, corpse-sniffing dogs take over the field.
One disadvantage with dogs is that they can get tired and confused over time.
Chemical tracking devices are being developed that will also pick up odors that humans cannot detect, but these have not yet replaced dogs. These are portable laboratories that can analyze chemical traces and gases. They use sensors to detect moisture, carbon dioxide, or chemicals released by breathing, such as acetone or ammonia, said Gaia of the University of Buffalo.
“It’s almost like a mechanical sniffer dog that can be trained to smell things we can’t,” she said.
WHAT OTHER TECHNOLOGIES COULD BE USEFUL IN THE FUTURE?
Drones and ground robots are already being used in search operations, but the most modern machines are still expensive, difficult to obtain, and rarely as fast as the skilled human rescuers who pilot them. That could change as they become smarter, more agile, and a standard part of search and rescue operations.
“It will be part of the kit that first responders have,” said Proulx of Teledyne FLIR. “The operation of these drones and robots is becoming increasingly autonomous. You will be much more independent and act as teammates rather than tools. “
One technology available to the emergency services – but not on site on Friday – is a microwave radar device developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the Department of Homeland Security that “sees” through concrete slabs and recognizes the signatures of human breathing and heartbeat .
A prototype saved four lives after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and was used two years later in Mexico City. Its developers say it has an advantage over acoustics, the common way of detecting people in rubble, as disaster areas tend to be noisy.
“We don’t mind noise and we can see through smoke,” said Adrian Garulay, CEO of SpecOps Group, a Sarasota, Florida company that sells the technology under license. Although it can penetrate up to 20 inches of solid concrete, it cannot see through metal, he said. It uses a low power microwave signal that is about one-thousandth the strength of a cell phone signal, and evolved from NASA’s efforts to develop low-cost, small spacecraft radios.