How Does Expertise Assist Discover Miami Rescuers?

(AP) – Search teams used drones, sonar, highly sensitive microphones, and a host of other new and established technologies to search for people in the oceanfront condominium 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.


The most common and proven technologies used to locate survivors in rubble 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 show whether a missing person was nearby.

Joana Gaia, a professor of management science and systems at the University of Buffalo, said search teams use radar and microwave signals, which can ricochet off objects and identify people and objects. She said it’s similar to the technology in cars that beeps when you’re about to reset something.

This can be more useful than cell phone data, which is not as accurate, especially when speed matters. In the event of a disaster, data is only useful if it can be interpreted quickly.

“Responders operate more for speed 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.'”


Search and rescue teams worked all night hoping to discover any sounds made by survivors.

The crews, which include roughly 130 firefighters in teams, approach the pile from above and below as they search for signs of life in a former wing of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida.

They said they use sonar, cameras, and sensitive microphones. 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 through a 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 can’t.”


Search and rescue operations in disaster sites use two types of dogs, 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 when the operation turns into a salvage operation, corpse-sniffing dogs take over the field.

Chemical detectors are being developed that also pick up odors that humans cannot detect, but dogs have not yet replaced them. 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.


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 an integral 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. “

Another technology that is available to the emergency services – but not on site on Friday – is a Doppler radar device developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the Department of Homeland Security that “sees” through concrete slabs and the signatures of human breathing and of the 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 8 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 arose from NASA’s efforts to develop low-cost radios for small spacecraft.

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