Before Greg Nuckolls and James Badham founded Western States Aerial Search, drones were just a hobby. Over the years, however, the two men have honed their skills and put their unique perspectives to work as they use the technology. Now, their drone hobby has turned into much more as they have found meaning in helping others by doing detailed aerial searches for missing people.
Nuckolls began tinkering with drones a number of years ago, and in that time he’s become somewhat of an expert on the nuts and bolts of how drones work. Badham’s interest in drones has centered more on taking aerial photography and effective drone photo taking.
The two met a few years ago when a call came for drone hobbyists to assist in searching for a missing person. When the terrain of the search area is extra rugged, it can be difficult for people to search on foot. Helicopter searching can be effective, but over time may be too expensive to continue. Drones had the potential to offer help in a unique way. And the two men had the skills to make it all happen.
Developing an Effective Drone Search Operation
After the men’s initial meeting and search experience, Nuckolls asked Badham to join him on another missing person search. At this point in the missing person’s case, the person had been missing for some time and it was therefore considered a “search and recovery” mission. The two put their unique skills to the test to try to locate the remains of a missing person and give closure to the family.
But the men quickly realized that there was no established tried and true method for deploying drones and doing a meticulous search in difficult terrain. Even those very experienced in searching for missing persons didn’t have a specific way of using drones to aid in the efforts.
“There was no process of using drones on searches,” explains Badham, who works as a systems analyst. “It was like throwing spaghetti on the wall. There was lots of overlap. It was very haphazard. Drones aren’t very good at huge plots of land.”
Another problem the two noticed was that many times drones would be flying at different altitudes depending on the spot. The variance in height, from nearly 300 feet above the ground to only 50 feet above the ground, made it nearly impossible to use the photo footage later.
“There was no consistency of scale,” says Badham. As a result, it would be hard to use a photo to easily direct a foot searcher to a specific spot on the ground. Clearly, they needed to go to the drawing board and create a process that would provide a targeted search.
So, Nuckolls asked Badham to put their heads together. The self-professed “tech nerds” with hearts of gold pulled up their chairs and spent time finding solutions. Their goal? Develop an effective drone search operation.
Their objectives included a well-researched and pre-planned area for the drone to search, based on information from the family, officials, and terrain maps—ensuring searchers are in the right area makes all the difference when looking for missing persons, the men say. Also, success included pre-mapping the drone’s course so it can travel on autopilot while following the terrain at a consistent altitude, all the while keeping discoveries meticulously filed and recording images that are GEO-tagged.
They’re always trying to better their process, but the men have already helped find the remains of several missing people, offering closure for the families in the process. Nuckolls and Badham knew they had something that could become more widespread and hopefully help more people.
Starting a Nonprofit
In 2018, they founded Western States Aerial Search, a 501(c)3 that focuses on using drones to help find missing persons. In some cases, people have been missing for quite some time and are presumed deceased. But the reason they spend hours working on the case knows no time limit.
“Our motto is, ‘Because it matters to you,’” says Nuckolls. “This isn’t about us. It’s about the families. I can’t imagine the pain they go through, and we have the skills to help bring closure.”
WSAS has grown to a team of seven drone pilots that help plan and carry out operations. They also do several test missions as they continue to develop their drone deployment operation process. The group also has a board member who has experienced having a missing family member to offer insight and keep the group focused on the main goal at hand.
The timing of WSAS helping with a search and recovery mission depends on the case. Sometimes police or other officials ask for the group’s assistance in locating remains. Sometimes the family asks them directly. Other times, the drone pilots just start searching on their own.
After a lot of pre-planning, WSAS meet on site and deploy the drones. Thousands of high-resolution photos are taken and saved on a secure server and only shared with specific people involved with the case. It can take hours, days, or even weeks to comb through the footage. Clues are shared with those on the ground. With a GEO-tag, clues can be located within feet.
In just a few short years, WSAS has helped locate three people whose remains have been recovered and laid to rest properly. Most importantly, they’ve helped answer the endless questions of the families who have been wondering what happened to their loved one. It’s that closure that keeps them going. Knowing they’ve helped reunite family members is all the thanks they need.
Nuckolls recalls a time he participated in an active search and rescue operation for a person who had gone missing. But after several days, the searches halted. “I’ve been there when the last day of search is over, and the family has that look in their eyes like, ‘What now?’” he says. WSAS can be that next step.
One such person they’ve located went missing in 2018 in Joshua Tree National Park in California. WSAS found out about the case and contacted the family, who offered information as to his last-known whereabouts, which helped the drone pilots plan and deploy effectively.
The next step, the group hopes, will be to figure out a way to accelerate their drone deployment process. For now they tend to step in and try to locate people who are presumed deceased, as their current process requires a lot of pre-planning. A newly missing person is a spontaneous event, however, and needs immediate action.
“We don’t have the luxury of time in those situations,” Nuckolls explains. The group is exploring the idea of developing their process into real-time and combining that with thermal imaging.
Western States Aerial Search never charges a fee for its services. Those interested in donating to the group’s efforts can do so on the group’s GoFundMe page.
To learn more, visit wsasearch.org.
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