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Finding the Missing and Unidentified: The Application of Predictive Modeling, Ground-Penetrating Radar, and Small Unmanned Aircraft-Mounted Infrared Imagery for the Detection of Unmarked Graves

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Competitive Discretionary
Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2020, $150,000)

Thousands of long-term unidentified human remains cases plague offices across the country each year. Laws for managing these cases are not standardized and, coupled with a lack of resources, perpetuates a system of inadequate management of the dead where hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals have been interred without proper identification efforts and without documentation of burial location. The purpose of this project is to improve methods for detecting the unmarked burials of unidentified human remains and to refine these methods within cemeteries. Current methods for grave detection are ineffective for consistently locating burials and have not been adequately applied in the context of modern cemeteries for finding those in need of restitution. To improve these methods, I plan to develop a generalizable predictive model for identifying high probability areas for unmarked burials using spatial and temporal data from exhumations conducted in South Texas through Operation Identification and the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS). This model, developed in the first 12 months of the project, will incorporate known cemetery data as well as documented locations of unidentified human remains found through past excavations. This model will be applied to and tested against future searches and excavation efforts at cemeteries throughout the region. It will also be used to focus ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and infrared (IR) imaging technologies to test their suitability for consistently detecting unmarked graves in various burial contexts (e.g. soil type, burial container, time since interment, depth). The effectiveness of the predictive model will be evaluated primarily through a process of ground-truthing through excavation. Spatial coordinate data will be collected for all physical locations of unmarked graves discovered through excavation and reconciled with the model to assess its ability to accurately deduce burial locations. As more cemeteries are included in this study, new spatial data will be added to the model to increase its robusticity. The effectiveness of GPR and IR technologies will also be evaluated through ground-truthing and subsequent reconcilement with original survey data. The results from this work will be provided to NIJ through interim and final reports as well as law enforcement through lectures and workshops hosted by FACTS, where best practices and alternative strategies for detecting unmarked burials will be presented. This work will also be made available to other agencies to improve protocols for investigation of the dead and for providing tools and training to institute these practices beyond South Texas.
Note: This project contains a research and/or development component, as defined in applicable law, and complies with Part 200 Uniform Requirements - 2 CFR 200.210(a)(14). CA/NCF

Date Created: September 18, 2020