(AP) – Search teams used drones, sonar, highly sensitive microphones and a range of other new and established technologies to help find people in the oceanfront condominium near Miami that collapsed in a smoldering pile of rubble.
Will all of this help?
Around 160 people were still missing on Friday, fearing the death toll of at least four people could climb much higher.
WHAT TECHNOLOGIES HAVE HELPED IN SUCH COLLAPSES?
The most common proven technologies used to try to locate survivors in the rubble are acoustic detection and sniffer dogs.
Aerial drones equipped with cameras and other sensors can be useful for closely observing the collapse, especially in the early stages of a search to help rescuers know where it is safe to enter. Data from smartphones and telecommunications carriers can show if a missing person was in the area – and cell phone detection gadgets can pick up signals from a phone, as long as it hasn’t been destroyed.
Joana Gaia, professor of science and management systems at the University of Buffalo, said it’s common for research teams to use radars and microwaves that bounce off objects and can identify people and Objects. She said it’s similar to the technology in cars that beeps when you’re about to hit something backing up.
This can be more useful than cell phone geolocation, especially when speed is of the essence. In a disaster, data is only useful if it can be interpreted quickly.
“Stakeholders operate from a point of view of speed rather than precision,” she said. “They think, ‘If I think a body is there, I don’t care how accurate the signal is, I’m just going to try to go and save the person. “”
WHAT ARE MIAMI RESCUERS USING NOW?
Search and rescue teams worked through the night in hopes of detecting any sound coming from the survivors.
The teams, which include some 130 firefighters working as a team, approach the heap from above and below as they search for signs of life in what had once been a wing of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida.
They said they were using sensitive sonar, cameras and microphones. Microphones, however, will not pick up calls for help if a trapped and invisible victim is unconscious but alive, as there will be none.
Neighboring communities have shared their drones, and at least one company is shipping a ground robot from California to help with research as teams work to dig a tunnel under the building.
“Once you step into this underground realm, ground-based robotics becomes incredibly useful,” said David Proulx, vice president of unmanned systems at Teledyne FLIR, a defense contractor specializing in thermal sensing. “He can go safely where humans can’t. “
DO THEY STILL USE DOGS TO SNIFF SURVIVORS?
Search and rescue operations use two types of dogs at disaster scenes, both trained to detect human scent, said Mark Neveau, former FEMA president and disaster expert. First of all, there are dogs trained to smell living bodies, but as the operation moves into a salvage operation, cadaver sniffer dogs take over.
One downside with dogs is that they tend to get tired over time and can be confused.
Chemical tracing devices are in development that also detect odors that humans cannot detect, but they have not yet replaced dogs. These are portable laboratories that can analyze chemical traces and gases. They use sensors to detect humidity, carbon dioxide, or any chemicals emitted by respiration, such as acetone or ammonia, said Gaia of the University of Buffalo.
“It’s almost like a mechanical sniffer dog, which can be trained to smell things that we can’t,” she said.
WHAT OTHER TECHNOLOGIES COULD BE USEFUL IN THE FUTURE?
Drones and ground robots are already used in search operations, but the most sophisticated machines remain expensive, hard to find, and rarely as fast as the skilled human rescuers who control them. That could change as they become smarter, more agile, and become an integral part of search and rescue operations.
“This will be part of the kit that first responders have,” said Proulx, of Teledyne FLIR. “The operation of these drones and robots will be progressively more autonomous. They will be much more independent and function as teammates rather than tools. “
One technology available to responders – but not at the scene Friday – is a microwave radar device developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the Department of Homeland Security that “sees” through concrete slabs, detecting signatures of human respiration and heartbeat.
A prototype saved four lives after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and it was used two years later in Mexico City. Its developers say it offers an advantage over acoustics, the usual method of detecting people in rubble, as disaster sites tend to be noisy.
“The noise doesn’t affect us and we can see through the smoke,” said Adrian Garulay, CEO of SpecOps Group, a Sarasota, Fla. Company that sells the technology under license. Although it can penetrate up to eight inches of solid concrete, it cannot see through metal, he said. It uses a low-power microwave signal about a thousandth the strength of a cell phone signal and evolved from NASA’s efforts to develop small, low-cost space radios.
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