Finding human remains on open ground has become difficult for search teams, and searching dense forests will become even more challenging. That’s why scientists are now proposing to use aerial drones, which will look for clues to changes in the leaves of trees.
Led by Professor Neal Stewart Jr., a team at the University of Tennessee will soon be experimenting at the university’s anthropological research facility, also known as the Human Farm. The experiments will look at how the “body decomposition island” — the area adjacent to the body — alters the nutrient content of the adjacent soil, which in turn causes changes in the plants that grow in the soil.
“The most obvious result for the islands will be the massive release of nitrogen into the soil, especially when the decomposition is so rapid in summer,” Stewart said. “Depending on how quickly plants react to nitrogen inflows, it can cause changes in leaf color and reflectivity. “
In other words, the bodies of large animals like deer are likely to affect plants in the same way. To do this, scientists will also study how human-specific compounds can alter the appearance of plants. For example, if a particular missing person is a heavy smoker, their bodies will have a different effect on surrounding plants than nonsmoks — these types of changes can help staff narrow the focus of their search.
The team has created a device that analyzes fluorescent signals across the plant. However, it still needs to be refined and miniaturized before it can actually be used in drones. Even so, the technology is designed to help ground searcher, not replace them.
“When you start thinking about deploying drones to look for specific emissions, now we can think of signals as more like checking engine lights,” Stewart said. “If we can fly quickly to places where someone might go missing and collect dozens or even hundreds of square kilometers of data, then we’ll know the best place to send a search team.”
The study was described in a recent paper published in the journal Trends in Plant Science.