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By Keith Wagstaff

After a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, a NASA device the size of a suitcase was used to detect the heartbeats of four people hidden under the rubble, leading to their rescue. The gadget is called FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response), and it employs an algorithm similar to the one NASA uses to measure the orbit of satellites circling Jupiter and Saturn.

On Thursday, scientists and government officials gathered at the Virginia Task Force One Training Facility in Lorton, Virginia, to talk about what FINDER could do. "The true test of any technology is how well it works in a real-life operational setting," said Reginald Brothers, undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security. "Of course, no one wants disasters to occur, but tools like this are designed to help when our worst nightmares do happen."

NASA/JPL-Caltech/DHS

FINDER, a joint project between Homeland Security and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, uses a microwave signal that is about a thousandth as strong as the output of an average cellphone. It's still able to penetrate 30 feet of rubble and reflect back signs of a heartbeat or someone breathing. The prototype used in Nepal weighed less than 20 pounds.

In the future, NASA envisions the technology being used to measure the vitals of people trapped in cars or quarantined with deadly diseases like Ebola. FINDER is so small it could be carried around by drones in areas that are too dangerous for humans.

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