Texas State lands $280K federal grant to study the use of drones to locate human remains

Texas State University's Forensic Anthropology Center has been awarded a $280,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to use drones to locate human remains.

Texas State says the grant addresses the difficulty of finding bodies in potentially large search areas.

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"How do you search a large ranch?" said FACTS director Daniel Wescott. "Well, 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. 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."

In the release, Wescott cited the case of a woman who went missing in an undeveloped area of Hays County. She was not found for several days despite extensive searching, including an aerial drone.

When her remains were found, 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.


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"If you've got someone missing that was wearing a red shirt, you could develop algorithms that look for red that's not natural," Wescott said. "The idea is, instead of just giving searchers the images, use computers to search those images with algorithms and provide them with a report on the best places to search. The idea is that eventually, we'll be able to do it real-time, with drones in the air."

Texas State says an initial challenge is documenting the ways the new tech differs from what's currently in use. The drones are equipped with infrared, hyperspectral and multispectral imaging and FACTS is testing the different imaging systems to figure out what works best in different situations, and if the addition of advanced light filters can make a more generalized camera adaptable.

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Wescott says data is being collected from the body on the ground and with a handheld infrared camera to compare with the data from the drone.

"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," Wescott said. "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."


The project will be conducted over the course of two years.