When a loved one goes missing, this volunteer-based group steps up to help in B.C. and beyond - InfoNews

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When a loved one goes missing, this volunteer-based group steps up to help in B.C. and beyond

Wings of Mercy drone operators are pictured in this undated photo, based out of Texas.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/ Shane Michaels
October 04, 2019 - 7:00 AM

KAMLOOPS - More than three years ago, a North Okanagan woman mysteriously vanished without a trace after leaving a property near Enderby.

Ashley Simpson was last seen in April 2016 with a bright pink suitcase. Since then, her family has searched extensively for her and recently offered a $10,000 reward for any new information.

Her case inspired Shane Michaels to start a volunteer-based group to help families when their loved ones go missing. It started off as a Facebook group to connect drone operators with families of missing people in different parts of the country. Their goal is to provide a service after police and search and rescue groups can no longer help.

“In a lot of these missing person cases the RCMP go in with all their resources and they bring in the local search and rescue teams and all their assets and that’s awesome, but sometimes they are only there for a day or two days and then they pull out,” he says. “A lot of these families do searches on their own after the fact, that’s normal, so we do what we can to help them out.”

Simpson’s case encouraged Michaels to develop software using drone technology to help find traces of missing people more efficiently.  He’s always been interested in helping the families of missing people since the early 2000s, but once drone technology was introduced he became more involved.

“I designed a piece of software that goes through every pixel in every single image and whether it’s a pink shirt or blue runners, it goes through every image and locates all those images and it circles that target,” he says.

It took him a few years of trial and error to get the program working, but once he did, he decided to start reaching out to other drone operators.

Michaels says he has located remains of a missing person with his software in Wisconsin using drone imaging, but has yet to be successful in Canada.

“I ended up starting Wings of Mercy so we could draw in pilots so we could dispatch them to help families and that’s kind of how it got started,” he says.

The group is currently in the process of becoming an official not-for-profit agency. Although Michaels is based out of northern Alberta, he’s managed to connect with more than 120 drone operators in Canada and the U.S. who are at the disposable of Wings Of Mercy. The group has even gathered operators in Italy, Iceland and Australia.

The group has been involved with several missing persons cases across B.C. including Ryan Shtuka from Sun Peaks and Ben Tyner from the Merritt area.

When the group first started last summer, they only had drones, but now their resources have expanded to using 4X4s, ATVs, divers, dogs and remotely operated underwater vehicles.

“We are slowly collecting up all these resources that we can try and deploy depending on what the situation needs,” he says.

The group recently purchased their first drone which is going to be stationed in Kamloops this summer that will also be used to help train newcomers.

“Kamloops is the epicentre of missing persons so our Wings of Mercy drone is going to be based out of there,” he says.

In some cases, he has had families referred to his group from the RCMP.

Michaels is also in the process of developing a website as well as a missing persons database which will also serve as a tool for drone operators.

“If we are already working out in the area on a new case, we can look at that map and say well we have an old case right here too so when we are analyzing images and doing flights, if we see something… related to another case we want to be aware of that of course,” he says.

Currently, Michaels says he is working on getting sponsors once the group receives their non-profit recognition.

“We are always looking for people to help us out. It’s all volunteer and it’s all donation,” he says. “We do what we can with what we have.”

For more information on Wings Of Mercy visit their official Facebook page. 

A map in progress made by Wings of Mercy volunteers showing missing person cases in B.C.'s Interior.
A map in progress made by Wings of Mercy volunteers showing missing person cases in B.C.'s Interior.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/ Shane Michaels

To contact a reporter for this story, email Karen Edwards or call (250) 819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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