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Photogrammetry as a Tool for the Forensic Documentation of Clandestine Graves

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The use of aerial photogrammetry to enhance field research has proven useful in a number of disciplines. These include archaeology, where it has been used to create virtual reconstructions of cultural heritage sites, and law enforcement, where it has supplemented the traditional role of the crime-scene photographer in preserving evidence. While these applications are in many ways similar to the documentation of clandestine grave sites in a human rights context, the technique has yet to be applied to this type of investigation. In gravesite documentation, photogrammetry has the potential to benefit investigations in three primary ways: by providing researchers with improved situational awareness; by facilitating the identification of potential burial sites; and by enhancing the documentation of gravesites once they have been discovered. Traditionally, satellite imagery has been used in the first and second roles, however its use is limited by weather, tree cover, and resolution, and therefore its usefulness in investigations is often limited to mapping the very largest of gravesites, or to providing context about the surrounding terrain. The outputs of photogrammetry are able to transcend many of these limitations. We describe a series of case studies in Colombia and Guatemala that demonstrate how photogrammetry using small unmanned aerial systems is a powerful and effective tool that reveals both qualitative and quantitative information about gravesites that is not immediately obvious, even to investigators on-site. We then explore potential new applications of the technology to related areas of forensic science relevant to gravesite documentation in a human rights context.

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Author

Jonathan Drake

Senior Program Associate

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Jonathan Drake

Senior Program Associate