Researchers at a European university are testing a new way to find victims who may be buried underneath thousands of pounds of rubble.

They employed drones to sniff out the data packets emitted by mobile phones.

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The experimental drone is equipped with two powerful antennas that sniff out cell phone signals (Image source: YouTube).

“The drone’s WiFi antenna could be replaced by Avalanche Victim Detectors which would enable the rapid and inexpensive deployment of the first avalanche searches,” Jonathan Cheseaux, a student at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, said.

As an amateur mountaineer Cheseaux realized that most people, even those climbing the sides of mountains or the majority of the population in some of the world’s poorest countries carry cellphones, and that their signals could be used to track survivors after a natural disaster.

“Flight tests have located a cellphone on campus with high accuracy,” Cheseaux said. “In the best tests we have performed, the place indicated was within 10 meters.”

The remotely controlled aircraft contains two powerful antennas that pick up the data signals the cell phones emit and send the information back to an interface on the ground where a search team could coordinate efforts. The researchers built a system that can track the drone in real time from the computer and colored dots on the control screen show where the spotted phones are.

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The system Cheseaux and his team built a real-time sensor system that relays cell phone data information via the drone back to a command central (Image source: YouTube).

Cheseaux is also developing the ability to connect with an injured person’s phone without their interaction. EPFL news reported an antenna on the plane permits the device to guess the identity of the router that connects the phone and then “pretends to be it,” thereby establishing communication.

“In the case of natural disasters mentioned above, it would provide a substitution network when connections have been destroyed,” Cheseaux said.

This kind of technology has been the subject of much fuss in the United States; the Federal Aviation Administration sent a cease and desist letter to one Texas-based search and rescue operation that was using drone technology as they help families find their missing loved ones. But this month a federal court told the FAA their letter was invalid, allowing the group to continue using the remotely controlled aircraft in searches.

And a man’s life was saved in Virginia last weekend when an amateur drone team lent a hand in the search for the missing 83-year-old and ultimately discovered him alive and well in a massive field near his home.

If you speak French, Cheseaux gives a full explanation in the video below that you’ll really enjoy. Otherwise, you can watch the video on mute and at least enjoy watching the research team launch the drone off the side of a tall building.

(H/T: Forbes)

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter. 

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