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

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

 

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

Just Posted

Okanagan team bows out early at B.C. baseball championships

The SOMBA Tigers U18 AAA squad lost its first two games at the provincials

Laugh out loud Okanagan theatre group production

The St. Andrew’s Players production of Drinking Habits hits the stage Aug. 23 for nine shows

Kelowna Rockets prepare for biggest rookie camp in years

The 2019 rookie camp starts Aug. 19 with over 150 players

New way to connect with South Okanagan-Similkameen family physicians

Patients who do not currently have a primary care provider can add their name to a centralized list

Helicopter-riding dog Mr. Bentley now featured on cans of new B.C.-made beer

Partial proceeds from every pack go to Children’s Wish

PHOTOS: Weapons seized at Portland right-wing rally, counterprotests

Not all who gathered Saturday were with right-wing groups or antifa

Sea-to-Sky Gondola in B.C. likely out of commission until 2020

Sea to Sky Gondola carries between 1,500 and 3,000 people every day during the summer season

It’s snow joke: Up to 30 cm of snow expected to fall in northeastern B.C.

Alaska Highway, Fort Nelson to be hit with August snowstorm, according to Environment Canada

Good morning bats! Salmon Arm office receives surprise visit by winged critters

Pair of bats found huddled together on wall in the sun outside downtown office

Retrieved body from Okanagan Lake identified as missing kayaker

Zygmunt Janiewicz had been missing since May and was recovered Aug. 10

Shuswap tow truck operator sees high number of collisions this summer

Drivers encouraged to “loosen up behind the wheel, smarten up and read the road”

Paddleboard festival coming soon to Kalamalka Lake

Wildfire smoke got in the way of last year’s event, but conditions look better this summer

North Okanagan-Shuswap Liberal candidate responds to Trudeau ethics report

Prime Minister’s immediate response to commissioner’s findings appreciated

Most Read