New device helps recover bodies and investigate threats underwater

LENOIR CITY (WATE) - The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is using new technology to aid in search and rescue cases. The remote-operated vehicle (ROV) also gives officers a tool to investigate threats in the water.

The ROV was used at the end of June to locate the body of a missing boater.

TWRA officials say the new tool is helping keep the community safe and make officers more efficient.

When officers searched Fort Loudoun Lake for a missing boater but the search last June it different from years past because they put the ROV in the water.

"We do have a new technology that we brought to the scene that evening. It's a ROV, remote operated vehicle," said Birdwell.

TWRA boating investigator George Birdwell says they conducted a grid search using the device. The rover uses new sonar imaging and video to find objects.

"It shows up on screen and we're able to determine if it's a vehicle, a truck in this case the missing individual," said Birdwell.

The ROV is operated with a remote control. The device is connected to a cable.

The information collected goes to a laptop running software specifically designed for the rover.

TWRA was able to obtain the rover three months ago thanks to a grant. In that time they've done three body recoveries and searched an area in Nashville for potential underwater threats near bridges.

"We've never had anything that goes underneath the water to look for these threats until now," said Birdwell.

When TWRA officers used the remote operated vehicle to search for the body they also discovered a car and boat 100 feet from the shore and 20 feet down.

"When we are out searching for a specific target we're always finding other targets as well, whether it's cars or trucks or boats we didn't know about," said Birdwell.

Sometimes discovering these items can lead to clues in other crimes, like finding a stolen car.

The rover shows underwater hazards for divers going down to recover a body. The device also preserves the evidence better than older methods of dragging.

"Whether it's an accident scene or crime scene, we're able to document that scene before any human contact with the rover," said Birdwell.

In the case of the missing boater in Fort Loudoun Lake, the ROV was able to locate the body within hours, when before it could have taken days.

The rover is a more efficient searching tool that helps both the officers and the victims' families.

"It brings closure so much quicker to that family. They're not spending days and days on the river bank waiting for a recovery to be made," said Birdwell.

The TWRA has used the ROV at the depth of 95 feet, but officers say it can go much deeper. They say everything about the unit has been beneficial.

As of now they have one ROV and use it across the state.