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3D printing may change cold cases and evidence preservation


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UCL project exploring evidence recreation working on veracity of 3D modelling.


Dr Morgan is enthusiastic about the changes to evidence preservation the PhD work may be able to facilitate.

Exact 3D printed replicas of evidence artefacts may hold the key to the way crimes are investigated and prosecuted in the near future.

A project at University College London, conducted by PhD student Rachel Carew, is exploring the possibilities around recreating exact copies of pieces of evidence to prevent decay over time.

This could help detectives working on cold cases in which the original piece of evidence has deteriorated.

Dr Ruth Morgan, director of the centre for forensic sciences at University College London who is overseeing the project, says there may be a number of advantages in preserving evidence in this way.

She said: “One of the benefits is being able to preserve an exhibit in its original state meaning we can look at it in ten or 20 years time and evaluate it with new technologies in a way that may not previously been possible.

“We are trying to work out the best ways of creating really accurate 3D models which can then be used… we have a lot of people working on this and the work that’s going is aimed at getting the accuracy part of the process spot on.

“Cold cases is an area with real potential benefits because often you are going back to exhibits collected many, many years ago.

“It can be difficult to evaluate them in the way you would have at the time as there are a lot of factors that can impact features of evidence.”

The technique may also enable evidence to be used in a different way in courtrooms, potentially bringing juries closer to pieces of evidence which would previously have remained untouched.

However, Dr Morgan warned of the possible ethical and practical limitations, adding: “It is interesting how we will be able to explain to a jury what has been done with the models and there are interesting considerations which need to be taken into account.

“For example, how do we preserve exhibits that may be from an individual? Say you were recreating somebody’s skull, you need to have a robust system in place to preserve integrity and the rights of the individual and it needs to be done appropriately.”

In terms of how far away this technology is from being deployed in the field, Dr Morgan says the technology already exists but the study is about demonstrating its worth and veracity in practical use.

She said: “The technology is there and it’s a case of ‘can we demonstrate the value’.

“The quicker and more accurately it be done the better, I think we are talking about a year or two rather than ten or 20 years (for widespread use).

“It’s a cool area for this PhD, which has literally just started, but there is a lot of good potential.”

Dr Morgan has previously warned about the “knowledge gaps” around what forensic evidence means or is able to tell us and the work she is overseeing around 3D modelling may help create a wider understanding in this regard. 

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Whilst I can it's uses in certain situations the given example probably isn't best. Whilst you can create models and store them digitally quite a lot of forensic information would be lost as a result. Should you make a 3d copy of a piece of skull and disregard the actual physical evidence, no longer preserve the original? It could be years later new chemical or microscopic techniques are developed but then these arent replicated and thus lost. By all means, new research and ways of storing pieces of information are great but no replacement for the actual item itself. If it is deemed so vastly critical to store such information I'd argue it would be to hold onto the original regardless of storage costs - where reasonable of course.

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