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Satellite imagery: the future of search-and-rescue?

The search for the schooner, Niña, missing in the Tasman Sea, is breaking new ground in the use of satellite images to locate mariners, writes Tim Paynter for the online commercial marine website

Niña was carrying an American family and a crew of three others from New Zealand to Australia when she was last heard from early this summer.

Because the New Zealand coast guard was unable to find the Niña, some say the boat sank. However, the families believe Niña is still afloat and doubt the ability of the side-looking radar systems on board the New Zealand P-3k Orion search aircraft to locate a wooden boat lying low in the water. 

After the search was suspended on July 5th, Ricky Wright, father of missing crew member Danielle Wright, asked Texas Equusearch (TES) to advise the relatives how best to conduct a private search.

TES is an all-volunteer organization which assists law enforcement and U.S. federal agencies in the search for missing people. Digital Globe, a satellite services provider was also contacted and tasked their Worldview I and II and their Quickbird satellites to take images over the Tasman Sea.
In order to gain fast review of the images, the photographs are available for public viewing on a crowd sourcing website called Tomnod. Under crowd sourcing theory, when many untrained observers pick the same target, they are usually as accurate as an expert. Over 13,000 people signed up to review the Tasman Sea images, though not all are active. According to the TES satellite coordinator, Larry Slack, the volunteer researchers have reviewed 3,248,584 individual maps so far.

“In today’s technological advanced world, governments and private companies have a fleet of commercial satellites circling the globe with high-resolution cameras, which can be positioned to almost any location,” Slack noted. “Depending upon the current orbit of an available satellite it can be re-positioned and re-tasked to capture the image areas in a matter of a few hours.”

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