New drone tech can tell the living from the dead in disaster zones

  Last updated November 8, 2019 at 1:57 pm

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An improved drone system can separate the living from the dead by detecting tiny chest movements.


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The drone technology could be used in the wake of natural disasters to detect survivors. Credit: Jose Jimenez/Getty Images




Why This Matters: Saving survivors and keeping rescuers safe.




Autonomous drone cameras have been trialled for several years to detect signs of life in disaster zones. Now, in a world first study, researchers from Adelaide and Iraq have taken this a step further.


Using a new technique to monitor vital signs remotely, engineers from the University of South Australia and Middle Technical University in Baghdad have designed a computer vision system which can distinguish survivors from dead bodies from 4-8 metres away.


As long as the upper torso of a human body is visible, the cameras can pick up the tiny movements in the chest cavity, that indicate a heartbeat and breathing rate. Unlike previous studies, the system doesn’t rely on skin colour changes or body temperature.


A more accurate way to detect life


Study leaders Javaan Chahl and Ali Al-Naji from UniSA, made global headlines in 2017 when they showed for the first time that a camera on a drone could measure heart and respiratory rates.




Also: Far-sighted computer vision research




At the time, their technique was based on detecting changes in human skin tone and the camera needed to be within three metres of the person. The technique was also limited to one pose where the subject stood in front of the drone, not lying prone as it would be in a disaster zone.


drone_drone technology_disaster zone

Firefighters use a drone during the Brazil Dam collapse Credit: Douglas MAGNO / AFP/Getty Images


Other techniques using thermal cameras can only detect signs of life where there is a contrast between the body temperature and the background, making this difficult in warm environments. Thermal cameras are also unreliable where people are wearing insulated clothing.


“This study, based on cardiopulmonary motion, is the first of its type and was performed using eight people (four of each gender) and a mannequin, all lying on the ground in different poses,” Chahl says.


“Videos were taken of the subjects in daylight, up to eight metres away, and in relatively low wind conditions for one minute at a time, with the cameras successfully distinguishing between the live bodies and the mannequin.”


New drone system is critical in time sensitive scenarios


Chahl says the technology could be used to monitor for signs of life where time is critical, helping first responders in their search to find survivors in disaster zones.


“This system would be ideal for many situations, including earthquakes and floods, nuclear disasters such as Fukushima, chemical explosions, bio attacks, mass shootings, combat search and rescue or where a plane has crashed in a remote area.”




Also: Making Unmanned Aircraft Systems Smart




Current ground-based operations for rescuing survivors in disaster zones include using rescue robots and rescue dogs, which are expensive and hampered by restricted access.


Chahl says the motion-based system needs additional testing in adverse weather conditions and to ensure accurate readings when bodies are partially obscured.


The findings are published in Remote Sensing.


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