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Search and Recovery (missing persons, presumed dead)

manutter51

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Hey folks, I've been asked to help with a rather grim task: searching for the remains of persons who have been missing for over a year and who are presumed dead. I got involved with a search that was advertised on Facebook, and though my search was unsuccessful, the family appreciated my efforts, and referred me to a couple other families in the area who are searching for the remains of their missing loved ones. I have no formal training in search and rescue, and of course search and recovery has some significant differences to standard SAR, so I thought I'd reach out and see if anyone in the forum had any experiences and/or tips in this area that they'd care to share. The families are suffering, not just from the loss of a loved one and the lack of closure, but also from the legal complications that result from not being able to issue a death certificate, so I'd appreciate any help and advice that folks could share.

Thanks!
 
Interesting. How did you do your initial search -- just by looking at the screen as you flew, or did you photo map the area? The only experience I have that might come close to this is searching the terrain for environmental concerns, such as piles of waste, discolored soil, 55-gallon drums, etc. I flew such a project last year over a heavily wooded marsh area in early Spring before the trees had any foliage. Rather than photo map the area, I simply videoed in 4K straight down and flew an autonomous back and forth flight pattern with slightly overlapping parallel flight paths to make sure I got full coverage. I had the drone continually facing north so the video orientation remained constant. Upon reviewing the video, it was easy to spot any item/area of concern and surgically send a team to that location to investigate. I chose video over photo mapping just because the needed overlap was less, I could fly a little faster, and I could cover more ground on each battery. I was also under a time constraint.

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First off KUDOs to you for giving it your best shot. I'll take a stab and give some advice.

  • A) The Drone isn't always the best tool for the job but it does have it's place and use in SAR operations. You need to learn how to Search for a missing person from the fundamentals and then move into the Aerial aspect of it.
  • B) It's really hard to see anything "old/degraded" from a Drone. Mother nature grows over things and decay makes things disappear rather quickly from an aerial perspective.
  • C) Thermal (assuming you have that option) is only good for Fresh/New evidence. In just a few minutes in cold weather the body cools to air-temps and is then invisible to Thermal sensors.
  • D) Unless you're looking in an open area it's very hard to locate/identify "disturbed" items of interest.
  • E) When you're searching during an active SAR for a Missing Person you're not really looking for a person waving their arms etc. You're more looking for "signs" the person left behind. Candy bar wrapper, dropped hat, disturbed dirt/leaves etc etc.
  • F) When you're looking for something like a lost/missing person sometimes what you find can be VERY troubling. When you're part of an established Emergency Services/SAR Organization there are tons of resources to help you cope/handle things you will eventually see. Sometimes a pastor/Chaplin/therapist is on site if the situation looks like it's going to need such support. Basically I'm trying to say sometimes we see things that hurt/disrupt us so much we need some outside assistance so these things don't "affect" our day to day life.

Be warned, you can not UNSEE some of the things we come across trying to find someone. Sometimes people "go missing" because they don't want their loved ones to see "the end result".

I'm more than glad to help in any way I can so feel free to reply here or you can reach out via a PM if you'd prefer.

Sincerely,
Allen
 
Interesting. How did you do your initial search -- just by looking at the screen as you flew, or did you photo map the area? The only experience I have that might come close to this is searching the terrain for environmental concerns, such as piles of waste, discolored soil, 55-gallon drums, etc. I flew such a project last year over a heavily wooded marsh area in early Spring before the trees had any foliage. Rather than photo map the area, I simply videoed in 4K straight down and flew an autonomous back and forth flight pattern with slightly overlapping parallel flight paths to make sure I got full coverage. I had the drone continually facing north so the video orientation remained constant. Upon reviewing the video, it was easy to spot any item/area of concern and surgically send a team to that location to investigate. I chose video over photo mapping just because the needed overlap was less, I could fly a little faster, and I could cover more ground on each battery. I was also under a time constraint.

View attachment 3815
That's interesting, I hadn't thought of that approach. My first search I turned on the camera and tried to cover a specific part of the terrain, filming as I went. It was more contour flying than your typical lawnmower pattern, since the search area was the sides of a steep ravine. There were searchers on foot, so I was assigned to get images of terrain that was too steep/rugged to navigate on foot.

I think if/when I do this again, I would prefer to make a detailed map with Maps Made Easy, on the theory that it's easier to scroll around a static map than to try and navigate via timestamps. Which is probably a _very_ subjective assessment, so I might try some test flights with the autonomous video just to see if that changes my mind. Thanks for the input!
 
First off KUDOs to you for giving it your best shot. I'll take a stab and give some advice.

  • A) The Drone isn't always the best tool for the job but it does have it's place and use in SAR operations. You need to learn how to Search for a missing person from the fundamentals and then move into the Aerial aspect of it.
  • B) It's really hard to see anything "old/degraded" from a Drone. Mother nature grows over things and decay makes things disappear rather quickly from an aerial perspective.
  • C) Thermal (assuming you have that option) is only good for Fresh/New evidence. In just a few minutes in cold weather the body cools to air-temps and is then invisible to Thermal sensors.
  • D) Unless you're looking in an open area it's very hard to locate/identify "disturbed" items of interest.
  • E) When you're searching during an active SAR for a Missing Person you're not really looking for a person waving their arms etc. You're more looking for "signs" the person left behind. Candy bar wrapper, dropped hat, disturbed dirt/leaves etc etc.
  • F) When you're looking for something like a lost/missing person sometimes what you find can be VERY troubling. When you're part of an established Emergency Services/SAR Organization there are tons of resources to help you cope/handle things you will eventually see. Sometimes a pastor/Chaplin/therapist is on site if the situation looks like it's going to need such support. Basically I'm trying to say sometimes we see things that hurt/disrupt us so much we need some outside assistance so these things don't "affect" our day to day life.

Be warned, you can not UNSEE some of the things we come across trying to find someone. Sometimes people "go missing" because they don't want their loved ones to see "the end result".

I'm more than glad to help in any way I can so feel free to reply here or you can reach out via a PM if you'd prefer.

Sincerely,
Allen
Well, sadly enough, my first case was a missing person who was presumed to have been murdered (and I'm omitting the details for privacy reasons), so I went into it assuming that a successful result would probably be traumatic. I have a little bit of experience dealing with traumatic stuff, so I've got some connections/strategies that I could resort to as needed. And if I could spare someone else who might perhaps be less prepared, then for me that's worth it.

I do have thermal, but as you say, it's not really useful for search-and-recovery. One side-note on that, though, is if there's a vehicle involved, e.g. someone went off the road in a remote, inaccessible location. The actual remains might not be easily detectable visually or via infrared, but a metal vehicle would be different, maybe? Perhaps a search earlier in the morning might pick up a vehicle that was still cold from the night before? Not sure.

Is there formal training in SAR? Maybe I should contact our local EMS, which I've been thinking about ever since I got my thermal drone.
 
I think if/when I do this again, I would prefer to make a detailed map with Maps Made Easy, on the theory that it's easier to scroll around a static map than to try and navigate via timestamps. Which is probably a _very_ subjective assessment, so I might try some test flights with the autonomous video just to see if that changes my mind. Thanks for the input!
One thing I did rather than using a time stamp to determine a location on the video was to record my RC screen during each flight because it displays the lat/lon coordinates of the drone. Using Davinci Resolve, I matched up the flight and screen videos on the timeline, cropped the screen video to only the coordinates readout, and positioned it at the bottom of the flight video -- so the coordinates readout on the combined video represented the center of the screen as seen by the drone. That way, I wind up with a ballpark coordinate location of anything I might see on the video. But I agree bringing a orthomosaic into GIS would be way more accurate.
 
Hey folks, I've been asked to help with a rather grim task: searching for the remains of persons who have been missing for over a year and who are presumed dead. I got involved with a search that was advertised on Facebook, and though my search was unsuccessful, the family appreciated my efforts, and referred me to a couple other families in the area who are searching for the remains of their missing loved ones. I have no formal training in search and rescue, and of course search and recovery has some significant differences to standard SAR, so I thought I'd reach out and see if anyone in the forum had any experiences and/or tips in this area that they'd care to share. The families are suffering, not just from the loss of a loved one and the lack of closure, but also from the legal complications that result from not being able to issue a death certificate, so I'd appreciate any help and advice that folks could share.

Thanks!
I would recommend that you consider looking at the program Loc8 which goes over all photos you take looking for a particular color that you designate. It scans every pixel on every photo you took looking for that designated color (clothing worn, etc.) when the person went missing. Search and rescue is a serious endeavor, which I have done for over 30 years underwater. The principles apply to any search done properly. If you are going to try to help, you really should get training in those techniques and methods. If you have some photos of an area suspected of being the possible place for remains you can contact Shane through his website and he will run the Loc8 program for you to see if you missed something by just looking at the photos. His site is www usri.ca. (He is in Canada.) Best of luck. (But training is better.).
 
Yes absolutely coordinate with your local EMS Dept and see if you an "integrate" within their system. You'll most likely need to learn NIMS (ICS 100, 200 etc) in order to not be an asset drain instead of an asset to the team.

Also, if you are working a scene and becomes (or is potentially to become) your SD card(s) and any viewing device that is being used to store information could be kept to ensure Chain of Custody of Evidence. For this reason, we carry an extra "wallet" of SD cards "just in case". If a half dozen or so are "retained" it won't affect our day to day operations. If they are "retained" they are usually returned in a few days "cleaned" of data.

As noted above LOC8 is an AMAZING program that any agency who is using UAS images should have at their disposal. Great suggestion @JRS
 
You can also reach out to Shane from LOC8 on Facebook. It's pricey software if you don't have a budget for SAR. We have one person in our region that has the software and will process upon request. They are also processing thermal images to. Recent recovery in Canada of a victim using thermal images with this software. The hit came 8 hours after the victim had expired. Temps were in the 30's at the time.

As Alan mentioned, this scenario is very unlikely. Most of the time if you get any hits at all it will be crumbs left behind, clothing, bike, food debris....ext.
 
I work for a fire department and we fly as part of our Emergency Management. We get called out for Mutual Aid several times a year and have now twice flown looking for missing persons in varying terrain.

There is great information in this thread and I will add my experience and thoughts. I am in NJ so this is based off of that.

1. Get permission to "help" if there is an active SAR being performed by Public Safety. Otherwise you could impede their efforts. As mentioned it would help to know the Incident Command system if you are going to operate in it. All incidents even the smallest for fire departments implement ICS with an Incident Commander and expansion of this system as warranted to fit the incident.
2. Prove where you searched. Use your flight logs to map out the area searched. GPX files import into ESRI Arc Online easily and KMLs do the same into Google Map/Earth. A big problem I have seen is where some SAR missions do not have a live map where pilots can upload thier flight tracks to "prove" and area has been overflown or searched on the ground. Well run SAR's will use Google Earth, ESRI Arc Online or CALTOPO to have an easily accessible live map showing the areas searched from flight paths from the sUAS or walk paths from your ground based responders. And further these tracks should be color coded to show whether it was on the ground or in the air and an area deemed clear should have both when containing foliage.
3. Take into account the correct tool for the mission. Examples: Thermal Imaging and RGB sensors cannot see through foilage. As stated this should be in conjunction with ground based SAR which we had in both missions.
4. Know the limitations of your equipment. Again thermal imaging on a hot day would make it hard to find a person that is the same temperature as the ground. In the winter a person in winter garments may only have their face warm. Fly at an altitude that you know your thermal sensor would be able to spot a person sized object. Zooming in may help to better identify something, but will restrict your FOV.
5. Remember that your drone is only a tool that is being used and not and end all solution.

On one of the incidents we had our Matrice 300RTK fly manually to look for and spot and then call for ground SAR if needed. Then behind it I mapped with our Autel Evo 2 Dual using a low 75/75 overlap at 300' AGL so we could go back and view the area at a later time. Foilage was the largest problem and only ground based SAR could clear these areas.

Both instances had the victims being found at a later time safe and sound and having never been in the area we searched, so a happy ending.

In New Jersey I have yet to see any civilians being integrated into any ICS for SAR as there are a large number of agencies that have sUAS programs and will respond as Mutual Aid. And of these all had either a Matrice 300 RTK with H20 series or Matrice 200 series with the Z30 and a XT/XTS variant. There are hurdles in having a civilian on scene that would need to be addressed.

Good luck and it is honorable of you to attempt to help others with your drone.
 
I had no idea how challenging SAR was until yesterday when I happened upon a group of people searching an area of the Boise National Forest for a lost chihuahua who had been out there for a day and night. I asked if I might be able to help by flying my Mavic 3 drone over the area. While the area was sparsely covered in occasional trees it was mostly wide open with a snow covering. My initial thought was that this couldn't be all that difficult.

They pointed out the area where they thought the dog had run and I flew a quarter mile to that area and pointed my camera at the ground using the zoom lens to see it better. I could see lots of tracks on the ground, but had no idea of the size of those tracks since I lacked a size reference. I flew a grid manually back and forth over all of those tracks but never saw any sign of that dog. Part of the complication was that the ground sloped upwards and I could not readily judge my height. I also didn't have the satellite map downloaded so I could not readily match my position with the terrain.

There was someone on the ground following the tracks and occasional drops of blood. My thought was that there was no way that I ever could do as well as a person on the ground. My other thought was that if this was a blood trail it was rather likely that a predator had already taken this dog. In the end I gained a significant respect for those who know how to do SAR from a drone and that if I were to do SAR again I would need lots of training and practice and perhaps an IR drone.
 
Hey folks, I've been asked to help with a rather grim task: searching for the remains of persons who have been missing for over a year and who are presumed dead. I got involved with a search that was advertised on Facebook, and though my search was unsuccessful, the family appreciated my efforts, and referred me to a couple other families in the area who are searching for the remains of their missing loved ones. I have no formal training in search and rescue, and of course search and recovery has some significant differences to standard SAR, so I thought I'd reach out and see if anyone in the forum had any experiences and/or tips in this area that they'd care to share. The families are suffering, not just from the loss of a loved one and the lack of closure, but also from the legal complications that result from not being able to issue a death certificate, so I'd appreciate any help and advice that folks could share.

Thanks!
Old post but if anyone is interested. Book called Lost Person Behavior. By Robert Koester. Good Information from years of real life ops on lost person cases. Can assist in decisions on where to concentrate your search based on percentages and how to lay out a search area. Based on probabilities for multiple type of ages, behaviors, mental status and habits. It is the bible for many SAR teams. Apply it to your drone ops to possibly increase your chances.
 
Old post but if anyone is interested. Book called Lost Person Behavior. By Robert Koester. Good Information from years of real life ops on lost person cases. Can assist in decisions on where to concentrate your search based on percentages and how to lay out a search area. Based on probabilities for multiple type of ages, behaviors, mental status and habits. It is the bible for many SAR teams. Apply it to your drone ops to possibly increase your chances.

That's a great book (tough read and very long but a TON of info) and we give a copy to each of our SAR Team members. It's interesting to see how many of them actually carry it for reference.

Side Note: The OP here is looking for Human "remains" so most of our normal SAR techniques are out the window in this type of scenario, Even more so with an extended period of time being the case here.
 
That's a great book (tough read and very long but a TON of info) and we give a copy to each of our SAR Team members. It's interesting to see how many of them actually carry it for reference.

Side Note: The OP here is looking for Human "remains" so most of our normal SAR techniques are out the window in this type of scenario, Even more so with an extended period of time being the case here.
Carry a copy in my work truck. The research on behavior is in depth, Have to carry it so I can reference it. Like the remains search here, if you have enough info on the victim it might at least get you chasing your tail in the most likely 50 acres. LOL
 
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I admire your commitment to helping families in this difficult situation. Finding a deceased body with a drone can be difficult. To help you navigate this challenging process, here are some practical tips to enhance your drone search:

Pre-Mission Planning:

- Check Airspace and Obtain LAANC Authorization: Before any flight, it is crucial to verify the airspace classification of your search area. You can use the FAA's UAS Facility Maps or the Air Control app to check if you're in controlled airspace. If necessary, obtain the LAANC authorization for your operation.

- Weather and TFR Checks: Evaluate the weather conditions throughout the search operation. Also, be aware of any Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) in the area that might affect your search capability.

- Terrain Analysis: You should familiarize yourself with the search area by reviewing maps and topographical data.

Flight Planning:

- Grid Pattern Flight Path:
To ensure systematic search area coverage, plan a grid pattern flight path. This method involves flying in straight lines over the area, similar to lawn mowing.

- Grid Pattern Leg Spacing: Determine appropriate leg spacing for the grid pattern, depending on your drone's altitude and the camera's field of view. Aim for a 10-30% overlap between each pass for thorough coverage without excessive overlap.

- Optimal Flight Altitude: Choose an altitude between 75 and 120 feet, adjusting as needed based on the drone's camera capabilities, terrain, and vegetation cover. This altitude provides a balance between ground detail and area coverage.

- Adjust Camera Gimbal Angle: Avoid a straight-down angle. Instead, angle the gimbal slightly to broaden your field of view and gain a more contextual understanding of the surroundings. Experiment with angles in initial flights to optimize for your search conditions.

General Tips:

- Interval Timer for Photography:
Set your drone's camera to take automated photos at regular intervals, such as every few seconds. This approach allows for efficient ground coverage and results in a comprehensive image set for post-flight review.

- Two-Person Team Operation: Whenever possible, operate with a two-person team. One person pilots the drone while the other monitors the live feed on a secondary screen. This setup enables more focused observation and enhances search effectiveness.

Indicators to Watch For:

- Terrain or Vegetation Disturbances:
Be alert for irregularities in the landscape, such as disturbed soil or unusual vegetation patterns.

- Personal Belongings: Look for personal items, such as clothing or shoes, which might be found near the remains.

- Wildlife Activity: Increased scavenger or bird activity in a specific area could indicate the presence of remains.
 

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