Researchers at Gujarat Forensic Sciences University (GFSU), the world’s first and only university dedicated to forensic and allied sciences, are using 3D scanning and 3D printing technology to analyse physical forensic data without damaging or contaminating original evidence.
The researchers are working to develop a proof of concept for this new data analysis method. The team will study & analyse physical forensic data like fragmented bones, tooth and skull for the first time in India.
Till a few years ago, it would have been impossible to even think of analysing forensic evidence without damaging or contaminating it. With 3D printers, it has become possible to scan and create unlimited replicas of bones – each curve, break and imperfection intact. And, Gujarat, which has been at the forefront of forensic investigation in the country, is all set to become the first State to adopt 3D scanning and 3D printing technology to investigate serious crimes, all the while preserving the original evidence.
The technology, which is widely used in fields of civil and automobile engineering as well as archaeology and palaeontology, is used in several advanced countries to replicate, foot/fingerprints, recreate crime scene models, and reconstruct features of a victim’s damaged face. It is even used to 3D print models of bones and skeletons to be shown as evidence in a courtroom as real bones degrade when handled too much, damaging the evidence when shown to the jury.
In India, it is being tested for the first time at GFSU’s Institute of Forensic Science. A senior official at Gujarat Directorate of Forensic Sciences said, “Currently, no FSL lab in India is using 3D technology. Our work is underway at GFSU and we hope to complete it as soon as possible. Its applications are far and wide from odontology to ballistics and medicine. Apart from fragile body parts, 3D printing can be used to recreate bullet fragments, broken weapons and body parts. We are at the Proof of Concept stage. This means we are testing it while trying to find out its limitations.”
Relevance in forensics
GFSU researchers said it all started with the need to analyse crime and accident scene evidence without accidentally damaging or contaminating it. For example, DNA extraction from crime scene samples could damage already fragile or fragmented evidence. It is here that 3D printing comes in handy.
A government forensic expert, however, cautioned that chemical analysis of actual evidence is unavoidable in order to make sure there is no error in analysis.
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Creating model evidence
In case of forensic odontology, where investigators focus on identification of victims or perpetrators based on analysis of teeth and other oral structures, they face problems if there is fracturing of teeth due to high temperature (fire), trauma (assault, accident), or decomposition.
Transparent nail polish, hair spray, cyanoacrylate or adhesives have been used to reconstruct fragmented teeth or jaw bones, which in some cases, can be extremely fragile.
So, researchers Dr. Abraham Johnson and Dr. Gargi Jani tried to come up with a better way to preserve evidence in pristine condition and also get correct results for investigators. This led to the use of Three-Dimensional Surface Scanning and reconstruction by a 3D printer.
Dr. Johnson is an assistant professor while Dr. Jani is a forensic odontologist at the Laboratory of Forensic Odontology at IFS. Their research paper ‘Digital Reconstruction of Fragmented Tooth Remains in Forensic Context’, which awaits publication in ‘Taylor and Francis: Forensic Sciences Research’, focuses on human teeth.
Dr. Johnson, the lead author of the paper who also serves as Member of the INTERPOL Forensic Odontology Sub- Working Group, said the use of 3D models can be used as judicial evidence to explain trauma or cause of possible death of the victim(s).
Citing example of the seven persons who died in a fire at Nandan Denim textile manufacturing unit in Ahmedabad recently, Dr Johnson said, “The bodies of the five men and two women were charred beyond recognition. This is a perfect example of how 3D printing can help in identification of the victims.”
Working with dental samples of 10 human teeth of the victims, the duo obtained 25 digital images to create 3D models. With acceptable error margin of +/-0.05 mm, they found minimal variation at 0.0526 +/- 0.05 mm, rendering it acceptable for investigation.
The team at GFSU has earlier worked on non-human (animal) skull reconstruction as well through this method. A fourth research paper on 3D reconstruction of human cranium and mandible is awaiting review. While two of their research papers on the subject have been published, a third has been reviewed and accepted for publication. The first paper, ‘Digital Tooth Reconstruction: An innovative approach to forensic odontology’, was published in the Journal of Forensic Odonto-Stomatology. Their second paper, ‘Case report: Digital restoration of fragmented non-human skull’, was published in the Elsevier Forensic Science International-Reports.
Limitations of the technique
The technique used at GFSU does have its limitations as it requires special setup, trained experts to operate the high calibre machinery, and has high cost of operation. Dr. Johnson said, “It also becomes a challenge to distinguish silver fillings on the natural tooth as it is not translated onto a 3D printed model. However, to overcome this, we are designing studies with restored teeth and working with different 3D printing materials.” Regarding the cost, he said, “It depends on the procurement of instruments ranging upwards of Rs. 15 lakh. The approximate cost for testing depends on size, structure, and quality of evidence material but approximately it would be upwards of Rs. 10,000.”
Amendment to law
Even if 3D printing technology is accepted and put into application in Gujarat or anywhere else in India, the question of acceptability of analysis on models is one yet to be answered. Officials worry whether just physical analysis of the 3D model would be acceptable in courts.
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