A portable sniffing device that will be able to help find people who have been trapped by disasters such as earthquakes or bombings has been developed by a group of scientists, it has been reported in ACS journal Analytical Chemistry.
The device, which has been successfully tested in a pilot study, is about the size of a hand and can be used either by people on foot, or by being carried by drones.
As many natural and manmade disasters result frequently in areas that are difficult to traverse with by vehicle or by walking, ‘sniffer drones’ could prove invaluable in such disastrous events.
Finding humans in ruins and rubble can prove extremely difficult, especially in conditions when a person who is unconscious or going into shock may not be easy to find with current solutions such as thermal cameras, sniffer dogs or acoustic probes.
The speed with which people in distress is critical and can mean the difference between life and death. Additionally, disaster response efforts can be expensive and drain the resources of humanitarian organisations.
This new device, the researchers from ETH Zurich, the University of Innsbruck and the University of Cyprus say, is an affordable and very selective solution that will allow first responders to carry out a search for survivors more effectively and easily.
It works by sensing three volatile chemicals given off by entrapped humans: acetone, ammonia and isoprene.
One sensor for each of the volatile chemicals is integrated into the device, which detect molecules of the gases as they are emitted from the disaster vistim’s skin. This process occurs whether or not the person is conscious.
The researchers built their palm-sized sensor array from three existing gas sensors, each tailored to detect a specific chemical emitted by breath or skin: acetone, ammonia or isoprene.
Additionally, they included sensors for detecting humidity and carbon dioxide – the gas that humans breathe out.
Current sensors that are able to detect human chemical signatures are bulky and expensive. The researchers want to further develop the device, which is so sensitive it can detect very small amounts of the chemicals, into an inexpensive solution that will assist in finding even the faintest signs of human life.
With one successful pilot study already completed, they next hope to test the solution in conditions similar to those one could expect after a natural disaster.