While reading the fascinating book No Stone Unturned: The True Story of the World’s Premier Forensic Investigators, I ran across this short passage describing how the organization began to use UAV’s to help locate clandestine graves. (I read books of this sort, because land surveying is also a forensic discipline using systematic scientific techniques to obtain evidence bearing on matters of law.) It is also crucial that drones can collect evidence with zero site disturbance, hence the term “remote” sensing. I will let the authors speak to the advantages of sUAV data collection:
The founder of MicroFlight Technologies, Gamber had always thought his aircraft might have law enforcement uses, such as photographing accident and crime scenes. But he was shocked after being introduced to Jack Swanburg and Dick Hopkins by their idea of using low-level aerial photography to search for clandestine graves. Even the skeleton on their business cards seemed rather morbid. He met them out at the Project PIG site, where he launched his airplane and took photographs of the area. Even though he knew the resolution on his low-altitude photographs would be good, he was surprised how good. It was easy to pick out the nearly two dozen pig grave sites, even the older ones.
The “toy” aircraft had several advantages over normal-sized airplanes. The unmanned planes flew slower and lower than their large counterparts, and the photographs were much clearer, particularly for small objects. Gamber’s aircraft could also fly low over populated areas, where regular airplanes and helicopters would have to fly impractically high for detailed photographs due to FAA regulations. Also, important from the always budget-strapped NecroSearch perspective, they were much cheaper to use.
The Cher Elder case was the first for Gamber. Shot from just above the treetops, the photographs showed even the rocks as they had been left. His photographs made it easy for the jurors to visualize where the grave was in relationship to the turnoff from the highway, as well as the rock shelf where Byron Eerebout claimed to have spied on Luther. The photographs were then related to another NecroSearch addition: the model of the hillside based on the work of Cal Jennings, Steve Ireland, and Jim Reed. Reed testified during the trial about how accurately the model had been prepared. When Byron Erebout spoke about sneaking up the hill to watch Luther, the jury could see from the model how he did it.
Jackson, Steve. No Stone Unturned: The True Story of the World’s Premier Forensic Investigators. WildBlue Press. Kindle Edition.
Update: I ran across another article on Discover Magazine‘s website describing forensic anthropologist Amy Mundorff’s work using LiDAR and Aerial Photography for forensic research at the University of Tennessee and other research sites. They evidently used standard planes and traditional photogrammetry methods. I still feel that “lower and slower” sUAV photography is superior for this type of work.