A Deep Dive on How Adventures with Purpose Puts Search and Rescue Tech to Work

The underwater search and recovery group taps a fleet of smart technology, including sonar, drones, and underwater voice communications to crack cold cases of missing persons and vehicles.

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Image credit: Josh Cantu

Water and information technology, it turns out, aren’t such great friends. But for search-and-recovery organization Adventures With Purpose, sonar and other radio-based technologies make all the difference when their crews search rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water for missing persons and lost vehicles.

Jared Leisek, founder of Adventures With Purpose, noted that in addition to three kinds of sonar, AWP also uses wireless voice technology (thanks to full-face diving masks), as well as Bluetooth and drones with video cameras to support the searches taken on by the all-volunteer AWP.

The Bend, OR-based group got started three years ago, posting items that its divers found on their underwater expeditions — wallets, cell phones, and other personal items — to the Internet, and pretty soon AWP’s YouTube channel started gaining traction. Then a family in Portland, OR, asked for help searching an area of the Willamette River for a family member and their vehicle, missing for 12 years. AWP accepted the request and found the vehicle and human remains; suddenly, its charter became more serious and humanitarian.

Most times, AWP searches follow the same trajectory: Once they’ve selected a case, they notify local law enforcement they are in the area, discuss what they’ll be doing, and confirm certain details. Once they identify a potential search site, they initiate a dive and depending on what they find, identify it as a crime scene, and again notify law enforcement. They’re careful to be very discreet about any discoveries to avoid alerting the curious and needlessly upsetting families and friends.

Cracking Cold Cases with Digital Tech

In just a few years, AWP has tapped technology to help crack more than 20 cold cases of missing persons around the country, funded by donations and sponsors. “We couldn't be doing this without the Internet and monetization of YouTube,” Leisek says. “This is a mission to serve, and we don't charge families or law enforcement a dime.”

AWP gained national attention this past summer with the disappearance of teenager Kiely Rodni, whose car was discovered by AWP divers in Prosser Creek Reservoir near Truckee, CA, in 14 feet of water. Rodni’s body and that of another passenger were still in the submerged vehicle.

Though local law enforcement had searched the reservoir, how could they have missed the car? Rodni’s parents had the same question. AWP, which relies partially on video drones for visual clues, didn’t see anything from the air either, Leisek says. “Drones don't work so well searching for anything that’s more than 6-8 feet under water,” he explains. “Most of the waters we're in are murky.”

And that’s where AWP puts sonar to work to see what the human eye can’t. The organization uses Hummingbird sonar for down imaging and side imaging, then triangulates with Garmin’s LiveScope transducer and black box. The black box compiles sonar data from multiple sources to render an image that covers a wide area of water. While LiveScope is rated by Garmin for a maximum depth of 200 feet, Sport Fishing Buddy reports it is best deployed to 100 feet or less.

Leisek says a magnetometer is a useful complement to sonar. Rather than puzzling over whether a sonar image is a boulder or car, a magnetometer determines if a target is made of iron or steel, Leisek explains, which makes AWP’s work more efficient.

AWP technology scanning the car in the Kiely Rodni case.

Image credit: AWP

Electronic Trail for Law Enforcement

Whether above or below the water, AWP uses a tracking app called SAR Topo, which taps GPS to create an electronic trail and record where their crews have searched. This helps reduce duplication of work and can be handed over to law enforcement, so that they know which areas AWP has already searched.

AWP also equips divers with a military-grade, full face mask made by Ocean Tech Systems, so divers can talk to each other and those supervising the dives from the shore or surface. Radio frequencies have a different range underwater. “A half a watt of power gives us 30 to 40 feet of coverage; we bump up to 5 watts for 80-100 feet,” Leisek says. Signals travel slightly faster in warm water than cold, where they’ll crank the power up to 70 watts.

“We have no other way to monitor the condition of the divers. Otherwise, all you have is bubbles to go on,” he adds. “It also really helps us for safety and for communication with topside and helps bring the viewer into the story.” AWP turns its search dives into multi-part videos on its YouTube channel. Divers also carry an external video recorder that allows topside controllers to zoom in for closer shoots, which they later sync up with the video.

Divers carry two oxygen tanks, one of which is a backup, and dive computers, which monitor both tanks, including air pressure and dive duration. “What’s nice about this is that they’re Bluetooth-equipped, which eliminates additional hoses and entanglements.” Those are a big safety concern, particularly in murky water or where currents are strong.

Searching Dark Waters

Like every other organization that relies on technology, Leisek and his crew have to make hard choices about what they spend money on. What’s on his technology wishlist? “I'd like to have a drone with a magnetometer, ground-penetrating radar, and also multi-beam sonar,” he says. “So rather than getting in the water, we can let the drone go, and it's more accurate with its hundreds of beams.” AWP would also like to have a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) for searches in dangerous waters or for when access is too difficult or deep for human divers.

Leisek and his teams of divers are committed volunteers and good at what they do. And their record of recoveries, while admirable, begs the question: Why isn’t local law enforcement doing this same work? “Pick any city in America, big or small — how many times a year do they have a vehicle that goes missing, much less one with an individual?” Leisek says.

Law enforcement must make decisions daily about how to use their resources and training, and underwater searches aren’t undertaken casually. “We don't fault any agency for any equipment or training they may not have. At the end of the day, we are civilians first, here to offer our expertise and anything else we can.”

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