Wings of Mercy drone pilots in Texas undergo training. (Photo contributed)

Missing Shuswap woman catalyst for new search technology

Ashley Simpson’s pink suitcase inspires program for colour-specific drone search

It all began with a pink suitcase. Ashley Simpson’s suitcase.

Shane Michaels is founder of Wings of Mercy, a volunteer group that uses cutting-edge drone technology to help locate missing men, women and children, mostly across North America but some in Europe.

Michaels was living in Penticton when Robert Pickton was arrested.

“Fifty missing women, nobody knows they’re missing, this guy feeding them to the pigs all the time… It was a big shock to everyone.”

He began looking at missing persons cases, realizing people were never being found.

“Madison Scott, (a 20-year-old woman who disappeared southeast of Vanderhoof in 2011) was the first case where I really latched on and followed it.”

He started a missing persons website, because he wanted to provide online profiles in chronological order.

“But then I didn’t feel like I was doing anything, just posting information… I felt I wasn’t actually helping anyone.”

He wanted to do more, feet-on-the-ground contributions.

When 32-year-old Ashley Simpson went missing from Yankee Flats Road in the Shuswap in April 2016 and drone technology was in focus, Michaels began thinking about the pink suitcase she was possibly carrying.

Read more: $10,000 reward offered for information on missing Shuswap woman

Read more: Search resumes in Shuswap for missing women

Read more: Documentary series investigates missing North Okanagan women

Read more: Action imperative on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

Michaels’ day job is doing industrial automation and robotics programming. Familiar with the monumental task of going through drone video footage, he knew there had to be a better way. With a possible 4,000 to 5,000 images per day, it could take days or weeks to do manually, he says.

“It’s too overwhelming, it’s not something a human’s good at.”

With Ashley’s pink suitcase in mind, he decided to write a program that can define a particular spectrum in a range of colour.

The program goes through images and scans pixels, viewing 20 million pixels a second, he says. The user can define multiple ranges to search.

Michaels notes he is not an expert in desktop software. He wrote the program but there was no user interface, nothing you could click on with a mouse.

“We had to hire someone to do the graphics, to make it user friendly.”

And it works.

“We found a deceased fellow in Wisconsin; we used blue jeans in that case.”

A YouTube video describes how the initial search tried by a Wisconsin group was unsuccessful and, about 15 minutes into the video, how Michaels’ program was able to find the man’s body quickly.

Once he created the program, Michaels formed the Wings of Mercy Facebook group because many drone pilots would be needed to acquire search data. Wings of Mercy now works on searches all over North America, assisting families, law enforcement, and search and rescue groups.

He estimates he and a couple of other administrators spend about four hours each per day on Wings of Mercy. The focus now is training more pilots and acquiring more drones. They’re also looking to recruit four-by-fours, ATV owners, quad clubs.

While Michaels tries not to get too emotionally wrapped up in cases, it happens. He is silent for a moment when he mentions a two-year-old boy who fell into the Mississippi River last year.

“You deal with the families; you feel their pain.”

Asked about his volunteer group’s success rate, he says he’s often asked that question.

“I haven’t done any better than the RCMP. It’s hard, it’s a challenge.”

What the volunteers can say is “we’ve done everything we can with a drone in that area,” he explains. Then families know it has not been left undone.

RCMP in B.C. don’t have enough resources, based on the numbers of missing persons in the province, he points out.

“In B.C., the statistics are off the charts.”

According to RCMP stats in 2018, with 14 million people in Ontario, 7,500 reports of missing persons were made.

In Alberta, with a population of 4.3 million, there were 3,500 missing person reports.

In B.C., with a population of 5 million, there were an alarming 12,500 missing person reports – more than three times the number in Alberta with a similar population.

He points out that while there are serial killers, RCMP stats show 92 per cent of female homicide victims know their attacker.

Read more: Candlelight vigil honours Nicole Bell and other missing B.C. women

Read more: ‘Now the real work begins:’ Families urge action after missing women inquiry report

Read more: Mother of missing Shuswap woman holds out hope she’ll be found

Regarding the four missing women in the Shuswap – Ashley Simpson, Caitlin Potts, Nicole Bell and Deanna Wertz, Michaels says Wings of Mercy has searched and will search again. But more information is available regarding some women than others.

He calls John and Cindy Simpson, Ashley’s parents, his greatest supporters.

“They believe in searching with the drones, they’ve seen images…”, he says. “I can see something the size of a golf ball or a tennis ball.”

Overall, Michaels’ initial aim remains the same.

“We’re just trying to do what we can to help as many people as we can.”


@SalmonArm
marthawickett@saobserver.net

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A Wings of Mercy drone pilot undergoes training in St. Helens, Oregon. (Photo contributed)

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