SAN MARCOS, TEXAS - Drones are growing in popularity, but before they entered the mainstream Texas State University researchers used them to find bodies.
Texas State's Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) has been using drones since 2008. The FARF includes 26 acres of land where researchers use donated cadavers to study how the human body decomposes.
"In the Texas heat, the skin will start to mummify," said Dr. Daniel Wescott, the facility's director.
Wescott gave us a tour of the facility, which included seeing the corpses in cages to prevent vultures from scavenging some of the bodies. Others donated bodies were left out in the open. Some in the sun. Some in the shade. Some underground to act as controls.
"There are a whole bunch of buried bodies," Wescott said.
The Forensic Anthropology Facility is one of six body farms in the world. Body farms allow researchers to get a better picture of how a human body decomposes from beginning to end and under various conditions. The information helps in homicide investigations.
"This is what's called an average decomposition island," Wescott pointed out.
A decomposition island isn't as exciting as its name. In a field, it's an area where a body breaks down, releases liquids and dries out again.
Initially, the process kills off some of the underlying and surrounding vegetation. Leading to black grass. Eventually, the decomposition island will see more growth than before.
"You can imagine if you're walking and searching, you can easily walk right by that," Wescott said.
Wescott also showed how easy it is to overlook human remains in tall grass. He teaches first responders how to spot human remains from the ground and from the sky with drones.
Drones can easily go places people or helicopters can't, like above tree lines and much closer to cliffs.
Those drones belong to Gene Robinson. Before working with Texas State, Robinson used drones to find bodies all around the world. He also works with the Wimberley Volunteer Fire Department.
He used drones to help search for bodies after the deadly Wimberley floods in 2015, when the Blanco River rose 35 feet and swept away a dozen people. While he didn't locate those victims, Robinson said he is credited with 13 recoveries so far.
Robinson said drones are cheaper and faster than search teams and helicopters.
"We can take this aircraft out and it cost us literally pennies to put in the air. Charging the battery, charging the tablet to make sure its ready to go, get the SD card ready, that's it," said Robinson.
The drones give first responders instant eyes in the sky. Offering a better look at the search area.
What type of drone used depends on the operation. For smaller search areas, Robinson uses the copters, which can last up to 15 minutes.
For larger search areas where more time is needed in the sky, the fixed wing spectras are used. They can last up to three hours.
"You have the logistics of having to go the airport, spin the copter up, get it going, get the crew in there and then fly out here," said Robinson.
Drones can save valuable time in life and death situations. Or when it's too late; a drone can help solve a murder mystery.
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