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The Next Big Thing in Search and Rescue

What do loved ones of the missing do when official Search and Rescue teams go home?

"Your son is missing" these words shape a moment that can never be taken back. These words begin a journey that will be unique to those that must travel it, reeling in the onslaught of emotions while navigating the logistics of coordinating search and rescue efforts.

In 2020, according to the Government of Canada, there were approximately 29,645 adults reported missing. From that total, 61% were resolved and removed from the list within 24 hours, while 89% were removed within seven days. What remains are 3,260 families that still search for their missing loved ones. Resources are limited. Information can be scarce. Families find themselves struggling for what comes next.

How Drones play a significant role in Search and Rescue Operations

One of the people instrumental in changing how people look at missing persons' cases is Shane Michael, founder of Wings of Mercy. This nonprofit group works with families, Search and Rescue, and law enforcement using drone technology to help locate missing people across North America. The group started with a modest group of volunteers interested in using their equipment to help others but quickly grew to over 5 thousand members. Their Facebook and website share posters of missing people and houses drone footage of searches for experienced eyes to look for anomalies that may provide answers.

My husband and I met Shane through Facebook messenger when our son Ryan went missing in February 2018. In our most vulnerable state, Shane's offer of help seemed far too advanced for my brain to comprehend, so my brother Kevin, an avid drone operator, quickly took over communication. What Shane was suggesting was unlike anything we were aware of. Of course, drones were present in the initial searches for Ryan. Covering vast terrain is necessary for Search and Rescue, but as you move towards recovery, what does drone support look like?

How it all began

Shane was actively involved in the case of Ashley Simpson, a 32-year-old woman that went missing from Yankee Flats Road in the Shuswap in April 2016. It was assumed that she might have been carrying a pink suitcase on the day she went missing. That suitcase became a catalyst for Shane to take his industrial automation and robotics programming knowledge to the next level, searching for missing people. He used the pink suitcase to write a program to identify a specific color and sort those images captured by the drone. The program goes through the images and can include multiple ranges of colors. The GPS coordinates attached to each image allow any that may match the criteria to be easily accessed and searched.

This type of programming allowed Wings of Mercy to look for Ryan in "real-time,"; not historically. Shane used Ryan's jacket and hat as colors in the range. Seeing how this worked was awe-inspiring. The colors matching the description were sorted to the top. Most, upon closer evaluation, could easily be identified as pop cans or headlights. Some were buried in snow with only a tiny splash of color. With the GPS coordinates, Scott would go to the area and clear the item.

It is a program that can be utilized anywhere a drone is possible. And it evolved. Shane has worked through the program to allow material and colors degradation through exposure to elements and time. It will enable volunteers to assist in those historical cases.

Such a powerful resource began simply with a pink suitcase.

On December 6, 2021, 5 years after she was reported missing, CBC confirmed that the remains of Ashley Simpson had been recovered and a suspect apprehended and charged with her murder.

Want to Learn more about Missing People in Canada

Wings of Mercy is one resource that families can contact when their loved ones go missing. An invaluable service from volunteers who are committed to helping bring the missing home.

Canada's Missing is an excellent website that provides descriptions and images of missing people within Canada. It offers a Frequently Asked Questions section and tools to help families navigate this painful process. If you would like to know more about Wings of Mercy and how you can help, please join their Facebook Group.

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