Researchers from Austria, Switzerland, and Cyprus are developing a sensor capable of ‘sniffing-out’ human chemical signatures underneath rubble following an earthquake.
In the past few years major earthquakes have hit communities in Mexico, Nepal, and Italy, among others, while hurricanes have caused similar devastation. Despite advances in search and rescue equipment – and in predictive technology – most first responders still have to resort to brute force, acute hearing, and sometimes just plain guesswork, when searching for survivors.
Earthquakes have been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the last decade alone. And those figures are predicted to worsen as urban areas become more densely populated – particularly in cities that are lying on tectonic fault lines, such as San Francisco, Delhi, and Tokyo.
Over the years, dogs have been a constant in search and rescue missions. Their superior sense of smell allows them to recognise human scent and lead rescue workers to trapped victims. But the method isn’t fool-proof: well-trained dogs aren’t always available, and when they are, the time they can spend in the field is limited by stress, fatigue, and other factors.
There is also a more systematic problem with relying on dogs: rescuers can only search small areas at a time.
Taking inspiration from canines’ ability to sniff out signs of life, a team of researchers from the Universities of ETH Zurich, Innsbruck, and Cyprus have joined forces to develop a sensor system capable of picking up human scents at scale. A scientific report titled ‘Sniffing Entrapped Humans with Sensor Arrays‘, reveals their findings.
A sensor array has been designed to detect metabolic tracers emitted by human breath and skin, including acetone, ammonia, isoprene, CO2, and relative humidity (RH). Together, they act as a sophisticated sign of life indicator.
The array consists of three nanostructured metal-oxide sensors. Each has been tailored to take highly sensitive and selective tracer readings while working alongside commercial CO2 and humidity sensors.
Earthquake rescues, by hand or by drone
The joint report states that the “inexpensive sensor array… can be integrated readily into handheld or even drone-carried detectors for first-responders to rapidly screen affected terrain”.
The prospect of combining the technology with drones is a promising one. It would allow search and rescue teams to scan larger areas at speed, honing in on human life whenever it’s detected.
In the research paper that outlines the project, Andreas T. Güntner writes that the array developed by the team has much in common with the technologies used for air quality analysis:
Sensor arrays can be extremely compact, inexpensive, and are used already as portable devices for indoor air quality, food spoilage monitoring, or medical breath analysis. Even drones or land robots could carry these arrays to rapidly screen affected areas too dangerous for first responders.
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Drones have already proven their worth in disaster scenarios. With earthquakes and other natural disasters often leaving local infrastructure in chaos, taking to the skies is sometimes the only viable option. The opportunity to combine the human-detecting ability of dogs with the mobility of drones and other devices is certainly worth pursuing.
Combining this technology with thermal imaging camera-enabled drones, and even supply-dropping capabilities, could provide an invaluable disaster-relief tool.