Is Satellite Imagery The Future Of Search-And-Rescue Operations?

The search for the schooner, Niña, missing in the Tasman Sea, is breaking new ground in the use of satellite images to locate mariners. Report by Tim Paynter for

Published 11 years ago, updated 5 years ago

The search for the schooner, Niña, missing in the Tasman Sea, is breaking new ground in the use of satellite images to locate mariners.

The Nina that was carrying  David Dyche, an American mariner who works for Edison Chouest Offshore, his wife, their teenage son, Wright and a crew of three others from New Zealand to Australia when she was last heard from early this summer.

On June 4th, 2013, Professor Evi Nemeth, crewing on the Niña, failed to check in for a 6:00 pm. Satellite telephone communication to New Zealand weatherman Bob McDavitt. Professor Nemeth sent an earlier text indicating the Niña’s sails had been shredded. At the request of the families, the Rescue Coordination Center, New Zealand,[Broken Link] commenced a communication search for the crew of the Niña.

An aerial search was launched on June 25th, 2013. By then, the potential search area had grown exponentially due to current drift. Not a single trace was found of the Niña despite the “biggest search in the history of New Zealand”. The search was suspended by the RCC-NZ on July 5th, 2013.

Because the RCC-NZ was unable to find the Niña, some say the boat sank. However, the families, believe the 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.  The RCC-NZ admits radar searches are useless to detect life rafts.

Post Search

After the search was suspended on July 5th, 2013, 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. TES assembled a dream team of SAR experts, including fluid hydrologists, geophysicists, and NASA scientists, again, all volunteers. Digital Globe, a satellite services provider in Longmont, Colorado 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 a fast review of the images, the photographs are available for public viewing on a crowdsourcing website called Tomnod. Under crowdsourcing 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 technologically 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.”

Satellites Applied To Search and Rescue

While TES is using satellites to help locate the Niña, now missing for nearly 6 months, Slack says satellites could be used as a first responder tool in addition to traditional search methods.

“A search 20 x 100 miles would take 6-8 hours for a traditional aerial overflight; whereas, multiple satellites could take photos of a large area without deploying aircraft,” Slack said.

Satellites are not subject to the dangerous swell after a storm that presents hazards to rescue craft, though satellites are affected by cloud cover. Photographs can be studied over time, which gives first responders a fast second look, unlike a visual search which is rarely digitally captured. Satellite images record everything, while radar searches may not pick up rafts or non-metallic objects. In the case of the Niña, it is unknown whether the radar search was recorded at all.

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