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Texas State uses drones to discover bodies

Drones are used by the Forensic Research Facility to discover dead bodies. Drones are an easier way to explore areas without putting people in harm’s way.
Photo by: Jamie Dorsey | Staff Photographer

The Texas State Forensic Anthropology Center recently acquired new drones to help train students in fieldwork.

Dr. Daniel Wescott, anthropology associate professor heads up the forensic anthropology department and often takes graduate students on field exercises to use drones to help identify cadavers.

Students practice at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, a 26-acre outdoor human decomposition research laboratory located at Texas State’s Freeman Ranch.

Dr. Wescott said one of the many benefits of drone technology over traditional field techniques is the fact that drones can search a wider area than exploring on foot.

“The drones allow for searches of large areas, but less manpower and time wasted,” Wescott said. “Also, once you find something, you can have 3-D coordinates of the location in minutes. It’s also useful if you are going over cornfields or other agriculture, you don’t have to trample through it.”

Wescott trains a handful of Texas State students every year in the use and application of drones in the field of forensic anthropology. A field that often helps law enforcement find missing bodies.

Over the last several years, there has been a rising national media attention about the emerging technology of drones, which can be used from a variety of ranges for such things as filmmaking and warfare.

Dale Blasingame, journalism senior lecturer, teaches a class on drones in the mass communications department. He has expertise on the developing history of drones in the United States and its unclear legal status.

“For a while it was a very, very gray area legally,” Blasingame said. “The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) tried to classify drones the same way they classify commercial airplanes. For a while you had to have a pilot’s license to fly a drone. Now it is easier to get a license to fly one and the regulations make a lot of sense.”

Blasingame also noted the effects of the increase of drone use in the wider culture.

“Drones are fascinating because there are a lot of things drones can do that people and helicopters can’t do,” Blasingame said. “However, they are just another tool in the toolbox, and I hope that they don’t get overused.”

Blasingame also hopes that those who pursue drones for recreational activity obey the same rules as everyone else when it comes to drone use.

There have been instances, for example, of private drone users interfering with firefighting efforts when combating forest fires.

Fire departments have begun using drones to fight forest fires, sending them into dangerous areas to deliver water at critical parts of the burn. There have been some reports of private drone operators interfering with firefighting efforts by flying their drones in too close to fire fighting equipment.

Professor Blasingame hopes his class will teach everyone the proper protocol when operating drones, including the common courtesy needed whenever operating in crowded airspace.