Search teams have been using drones, sonars, high-sensitivity microphones and a host of new and established technologies to search for people in the oceanfront apartment building near Miami Beach that collapsed.
How does technology help rescuers in Miami Apartment Complex Collapse?
WHAT TECHNOLOGIES HAVE BEEN PROVEN TO BE USEFUL IN SUCH LANDSLIDES?
The most common proven technology for trying to locate survivors under debris is acoustic detection.
Aerial drones equipped with special cameras and other sensors can be useful to see the collapse up close, especially in the early stages of a search so rescuers know if it is safe to enter. Data from smartphones and telecom operators can show whether a missing person was in the area and cell phone detectors can pick up the signals from a phone, as long as it is not destroyed.
More than a day after the collapse in Miami Beach, an expert talks about the chances of finding people alive under the rubble.
Joana Gaia, a professor of science and management systems at the University at Buffalo, said it’s common for search teams to use radars and microwaves that bounce off objects and can identify people and objects. He said it’s similar to car systems that set off an alarm when you’re about to hit something while backing up.
That can be more useful than cell phone geolocation, especially when speed is critical. In a disaster situation, data is only useful if it can be interpreted quickly.
“Rescuers operate from a position of speed rather than precision,” he said. “They think, ‘If I think there’s a body there, I don’t care how accurate the signal is, I’m just going to try to rescue the person.’
WHAT ARE MIAMI RESCUERS USING NOW?
Search and rescue teams have worked through the night in hopes of detecting sounds from survivors.
The teams, which include about 130 firefighters, examine the pile of debris from above and below for any signs of life in what was once a wing of the South Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida.
They have said that in addition to sniffer dogs they use sensitive sonars, cameras and microphones, but the microphones would not pick up cries for help if a trapped and out of sight victim is alive but unconscious.
Surrounding communities have shared drones and at least one company sent a ground robot from California to help with the search.
“Once you get to the underground field, ground robotics becomes incredibly useful,” said David Proulx, a vice president of remotely controlled systems at Teledyne FLIR, a defense contractor that specializes in thermal sensing. “It can safely go where humans cannot.”
DO YOU STILL USE DOGS TO DETECT SURVIVORS?
Search and rescue operations use two types of disaster scene dogs, both trained to detect human odor, said Mark Neveayu, a former member of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and disaster expert. First, there are the dogs that detect live body odors, but when the rescue operation turns into recovery, the dogs that smell corpses enter the field.
One drawback with dogs is that they tend to tire over time and can become confused.
Devices are being developed to track chemicals so that they also detect odors that humans cannot, but still do not replace dogs. There are portable labs that can analyze chemical traces and gases. They use sensors to detect moisture, carbon dioxide, or any chemical emitted through respiration, such as acetone or ammonia, Gaia said.
“It’s almost like a mechanical sniffer dog, that can be trained to smell things that we can’t,” he added.
The building is located in an exclusive area and many Latin Americans had properties in the luxurious building.
WHAT OTHER TECHNOLOGIES MAY BE USEFUL IN THE FUTURE?
Drones and ground robots are already used in rescue operations, but the more sophisticated machines are still expensive, hard to come by, and rarely as fast as the trained human rescuers who control them. That could change as they become smarter, more agile, and a common part of search and rescue operations.
“It will be part of the package that rescuers have,” Proulx said. “The operation of these drones and robots will be increasingly autonomous. They will be much more independent and will operate as team members rather than tools. ”
One technology available – but not at the scene of the tragedy on Friday – is a microwave radar developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Department of Homeland Security that “sees” through concrete blocks, detecting signals from human respiration and heartbeat.
A prototype saved four lives after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and was used two years later in Mexico City. Its creators say it offers an advantage over acoustics, the usual method of detecting people in debris, because disaster sites tend to be noisy.
“Noise doesn’t affect us and we can see through smoke,” said Adrian Garulay, CEO of the Specs Ops Group, a Sarasota, Florida company that sells the technology under license. Although it can penetrate up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) of solid concrete, it cannot see through metal, he said.
It uses a low-power microwave signal with about one-thousandth the strength of a cell phone signal and grew out of NASA’s attempts to develop small, inexpensive radios for space probes.
Travis M. Andrews is a features writer for The Washington Post. He joined The Post in 2016 as a reporter for Morning Mix. He was previously a travel and culture editor for Southern Living magazine, a contributing pop culture reporter for Mashable and the Week, and a contributing editor for the Syfy blog Dvice. He also has freelanced for magazines, including Esquire, GQ and Time. He is the author of the coming book “Because He’s Jeff Goldblum,” a semi-rumination and semi-ridiculous look at the career of the enigmatic actor and an exploration of the shifting nature of fame in the 21st century, to be published in November by Plume.