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From Criminal Minds to CSI: the rise of Ground Penetrating Radar in clandestine investigations

Updated: Jan 31

At SUMO we are lucky enough to have staff with an eclectic taste in television!

Whilst watching a box set of Criminal Minds from 2006, one of our Directors was surprised to see the forensic team using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) equipment to locate human remains under a garden gazebo. With an extremely clear (and somewhat fanciful) data image, it got us thinking about the rise of GPR in clandestine investigations...

Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)

Above: The above ‘data image’ was apparently collected by Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) on the hit TV show Criminal Minds.

Similarly, several years ago, another SUMO Director was watching CSI New York and spotted the exact same GPR equipment that SUMO regularly used for commercial survey work.

Above left: The circled equipment is the GSSI SIR 3000 with a 400 MHz antenna. SUMO used to use this equipment daily but has since updated its equipment with dual and multi frequency GPR systems. Above right: SUMO’s GSSI Sir 3000 on a commercial site.

During the CSI New York episode, not only did the GPR equipment ‘beep’ upon locating the body, but it also detected all the bones within the skeleton and identified that the victim was covering their face to defend themselves. Thus, the CSI team concluded that the victim had been murdered!

Multi frequency GPR

Above: The image above shows the data collected in an episode of CSI New York. Whilst the equipment used was ‘state of the art’ at the time, the data in the programme was so detailed (it even showed individual bones, which sadly isn’t the reality!

No wonder it took so long to find Richard III’s remains in the car park in Leicester…. we were obviously using the wrong equipment and should have borrowed Hollywood’s!

The reality

As exciting, glamorous and easy as Hollywood makes the survey process look, the reality is very different. When using GPR to locate buried bodies, surveyors look for a subtle change in the data compared to the surroundings. Often, buried remains present similar characteristics to air voids. If remains have been buried in a coffin or submerged in concrete, they can be more easily identified. This is because bodies which lay in concrete and within coffins appears as a ‘blob’ in the data (see image below).

GPR Radargram time-slice

Above: The image shows a GPR Radargram ‘time-slice’. This is a vertical cross-section of data showing various coffin burials.

We’ve discussed remains that are in a 'flat' position… but what happens if remains are crouched, upright or have been placed in a hole which has been backfilled with the same material?

Often, clandestine burials are in a hole which has been quickly dug and backfilled with the same material (e.g. soils). This means it can be extremely difficult to identify ‘graves’ from the surrounding material.

GPR does have its use in criminal investigations. Both the MET Police and the Home Offices use sophisticated GPR systems to locate clandestine remains. But in most cases, GPR is often used in conjunction with cadaver dogs, criminal intelligence, historic mapping and criminal profiling. Furthermore, SUMO also has previous involvement in several forensic investigations. Most notably, as a part of the search for ‘The Disappeared’ alongside the Independent Commission for the Location of Victim Remains (ICLVR) in Ireland.

Fact versus Fiction

As entertaining as crime investigation programmes are, they do little for the Surveyor industry. In fact, they can mislead people into thinking that GPR is an ‘X-ray’ machine, with the result. This means that clients may be disappointed by the actual results versus what they have seen on television.

At SUMO it is our aim to consistently deliver the highest quality of data. It is important to manage our client’s expectations by explaining the limitations of individual survey techniques. As well as this, we will ensure the best approach for their specific project and what outcome they can expect..

We also work with our clients to gain as much site information as possible. This helps us to deploy the best equipment for the job and to make informed interpretations of the data.

Want to know more about our survey techniques and their applications?

Why not ask us in for a FREE, no-obligation technical presentation? You’ll get an honest insight into the world of surveying and we might even throw in a few Hollywood examples for fun!

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