Philipp Neuhaus

After an earthquake, building collapse, or another catastrophic event, it is extremely difficult to determine the location of buried persons. After the 2009 collapse of the Historical Archive of Cologne, Germany, it was unknown for several hours how many people were trapped and where to search for them.

Today, almost everyone uses mobile phones, which exchange data with the corresponding network via GSM or UMTS nearly every second. By means of this status data, it is possible to determine the location of a person in distress within about 500 metres without the active assistance of the individual in question.

To achieve higher accuracy, the presented project plans to use special mobile search devices. These devices use Galileo/GNSS to determine their own position and are also able to measure the signal strength of buried mobile phones. The current locations and measurements of the mobile devices are exchanged via COSPAS/SARSAT. Thus, it will be possible to find out where people are located in short order.

The localisation device provides the user with information about areas where the buried persons might be found and which have not yet been scanned. The system also gives concrete recommendations to rescue workers regarding paths that should be explored next to close gaps in the area under exploration.

The system uses the information provided by GSM packets to localise people in distress. To extend mobile devices’ information basis, COPAS/SASAT is used to exchange information about buried victims. For the best possible support, the mobile devices will issue specific suggestions to the user about areas that need to be searched to fully cover an area.

As the figure indicates, search devices (shown in green) receive orders on where they should scan for mobile phones to achieve complete coverage of an area. Red crosses symbolise mobile phones already detected.

Mobile search devices can be used by relief organisations to quickly obtain an overview of an area after a catastrophic event. Because of the increasing distribution of mobile phones, the chance that a buried person will have one is also growing. Using the devices’ electromagnetic signals to localise their owners can save considerable time in rescue work, freeing up lifesaving appliances for other operations – or, in the case of a wide-area event, for other locations.

The system significantly accelerates the process of locating and rescuing people buried under rubble by providing relief organisations with highly portable, easy-to-use devices. Its self-organising aspect enables rescue staff to start the mapping process without any arrangements, and victims don’t have to buy, carry, or interact with special equipment in order to be found. Thanks to its modularised design, the system can be enhanced, for example, with automated detectors and sensors compatible with Bluetooth or WiFi.


University of Muenster
Department of Medical Informatics and Biomathematics
Philipp Neuhaus
Domagkstr. 11
48149 Münster
phone: +49 251 83 58 213