Finding roughly 120 lost people a year in Utah County takes expertise, experience and more than a little luck. BYU researchers think they can help -- with math.
The idea works like this: you take the place a person was last seen and add in vegetation, slope and other terrain variables. Include data of the movements of people who have been lost in the area before plus the knowledge of local search and rescue experts, and you can significantly narrow down where a lost person might be.
"A lot of search and rescue has a fairly mathematical component," said professor Michael Goodrich, adding that such efforts reach back to World War II.
Goodrich, doctoral candidate Lanny Lin and others recently had their research published in Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory.
Utah County and its environs are a popular place to get lost, even if just for a few moments.
"Anyone who has ever spent time in the wilderness has spent some time where we've been disoriented," Goodrich said.
If that disorientation leads to getting lost, Goodrich and Lin think they can help. While not ready for prime time, Lin said he hopes his algorithms can be put to use in a year or so. It would be relatively easy to input data and take just a few minutes to crunch the numbers and spit out results. One piece of critical data would be the paths that previously lost hikers took. While those who are found can recount some basic information, Lin thinks another source will be more helpful: geocachers. Because they use GPS to find their prizes, geocachers also leave data trails of paths they take through the wilderness.
On top of getting such data to searchers on the ground, BYU teams are also looking into uploading information into an unmanned aerial vehicle.
BYU has such a vehicle, though it's used under restrictions from the Federal Aviation Administration.
"It turns out they don't like small unmanned aerial vehicles flying into Cessnas," Goodrich said.
The county does have an airplane at its disposal for searches, according to Sgt. Tom Hodgson, who says that along with math and experience, psychology can play a large role. His search and rescue unit recently did a presentation on their "lost person questionnaire."
The questions range from where they typically go in the outdoors to very personal information about fights with family members.
"Sometimes it offends people, but you have to get their state of mind," Hodgson said.