Research analyzes using drones to find dead bodies

By Jakob Rodriguez, KSAT | June 11, 2020

SAN MARCOS – Texas State University announced its Forensic Anthropology Center was awarded a $280,000 grant to utilize drones to locate human remains.

According to a press release by the university, over the course of the two-year project, forensic anthropologists at Texas State will “explore the capabilities and limitations of drones as tools for locating and identifying human remains.”

Daniel Wescott, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State, said utilizing drones in forensic anthropology answers the question: “How do you search a large ranch?”

“If we can narrow it down to a few key spots to search with a drone, that greatly reduces the manpower and the cost associated with these long searches,” Wescott said. “We are planning on developing best practices, at least for Central Texas. The data we have can be applied to other environments, but those best practices may differ a little bit.”

An initial challenge encountered by the team is documenting the ways in which the new technology differs from equipment currently in use.

According to the press release from the university, the drones are equipped with infrared, hyperspectral and multispectral imaging. According to Wescott, Texas State anthropologists are testing different imaging systems to determine what works best in different situations and if the addition of advanced light filters can support a more generalized camera adaptable to a wider range of conditions.

“We are collecting data from the body and then we’re collecting data with a handheld infrared camera. We’re collecting temperature and decomposition scores and comparing that to the data from the drone,” Wescott said. “We need to know if the drone reflects the ground truth data or not? For example, one thing we’re finding is that as you go higher with a drone, the actual temperature readings you’re getting from a body may not be real. You can’t use that for forensics analysis or testifying in court, but when you’re doing a search it doesn’t really make any difference. As long as you have a temperature difference, you can find the body.”

According to the press release, the grant addresses the difficulty of locating deceased individuals in potentially large search areas by drones.

“Wescott cited a case in which a woman went missing in an undeveloped area of Hays County. She was not found for several days despite extensive searching that included an aerial drone," the press release reads. "When her remains were recovered, the searchers realized the drone had photographed the area where she was found. When the photos were reexamined, the body was readily identifiable because at that point they knew what to look for, although it had been missed on initial examination. "

Wescott said the work conducted at Texas State and data gathered, could become crucial when utilizing drones in either a research or law enforcement related capacity.

“If we can get standardized procedures and people know what they’re looking for, that’s going to really help law enforcement because they’re not going to have time to dig into all these details,” Wescott said. “For search and documenting, it’s going to be a pretty significant technological advance.”

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