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How 3D printing, virtual reality and computer animation tech aids police

The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is working with police investigators to deploy cutting-edge technology in the field


By using 3D printing technology, scientists could create a replica of a murder victim’s skull, enabling police experts to render a facial likeness of the victim.


By Jack Bunja

After playing an important role in a murder investigation, the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) – the Army’s principal R&D center for chemical and biological defense technology, engineering and field operations – could prove itself to be a valuable crime-solving partner with local law enforcement.

3D printing aids investigators

In September, Maryland State Police homicide investigators found skeletal remains on the side of a highway in Anne Arundel County, and they determined that the victim had been murdered. However, the body was decomposed and lacked identification, making it difficult to name the victim.

Unable to find a DNA match, homicide investigators were at a dead end. Without knowing who the victim was and whom he may have associated with, investigators couldn’t solve the murder.

After being contacted by the state police, ECBC scientists found a potential solution. By using 3D printing technology, scientists could create a replica of the skull, enabling police experts to render a facial likeness of the victim, which could lead to an identification.

“The medical examiner’s office sent us the CAT scan data, which we converted into a computer file that we sent to a 3D printer,” said Rick Moore, chief of ECBC’s Rapid Technologies and Inspection Branch.

From a 3D printed model, experts can examine the bone structure to predict how facial muscles and skin would lay on the skull.

“From an autopsy, they were able to scan the actual skull, make a 3D model, and then come up with a facial likeness that we could use to identify who this skull belongs to,” said Lieutenant Scott Cook, commander of the Maryland State Police homicide unit. “That’s the first step in trying to solve this murder.”

With a rendering of the victim’s facial likeness, investigators hope for someone to come forward and identify the body.

“The skull composite was done to assist with having a forensic facial reconstruction completed. We hope that putting the facial reconstruction out to the public through the media will help us identify the victim,” Cook said. “The investigation is ongoing, but we are optimistic that once the victim is identified, we will be able to move forward quickly with identifying a suspect or suspects.”

While they haven’t yet identified the victim or solved the crime, MSP investigators were intrigued by ECBC’s capabilities and wanted to learn more about how the two organizations could partner in the future.

“Part of the purpose of this was to learn what other capabilities ECBC has that could be useful to law enforcement,” Cook said. “It’s to see if and how we could partner with ECBC, what we could do for ECBC, and what ECBC can do for us.”

Computer animation, augmented and virtual reality could aid LE

During a tour of one of ECBCs’ facilities, led by Moore, Cook and his colleagues learned about ECBC’s capabilities in the fields of computer animation, augmented and virtual reality, and 3D printing.

Cook pointed to a few of ECBC’s capabilities, like augmented reality and virtual reality tools, as areas where he saw tangible possibilities for law enforcement use.

“The virtual reality training tool for high-risk entries, that would be an area where I see a certain law enforcement value,” he said.

In virtual reality, users are immersed into a digital environment. Augmented reality is slightly different; instead of being immersed into a digital environment, users have their environment augmented with digital overlays.

With knowledge of the building’s design, investigators could create a replica in virtual reality for officers to undergo entry training. Augmented reality could be used to include details as the mission is underway,

Computer animation is also being used to create a digital library of firearms and potential modifications to them, another tool that could prove useful to law enforcement. Moore said the potential exists for computer animation to generate facial likeness, should operators have the knowledge and experience to do so.

Moore said he sees a wealth of opportunity in a partnership with Maryland State Police. In fact, the state police plan on inviting ECBC to a crime scene to see what ECBC can do in the field.

“They want to take us to a crime scene location and use our equipment to capture 3D imaging,” Moore explained. “From that, they can basically capture measurable 3D data that they can use to potentially reveal facts or help solve the case.”

That information could be used to determine the trajectory and origin point of a fired bullet without physically touching any part of the crime scene.

Moore noted that ECBC already has a partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).

Doug Brunelle, branch chief of visual information services for ATF, said the partnership has been valuable. He said ATF’s partnership with ECBC led to a better way of collecting shell casings for identification and testing.

What ECBC provides, he said, is a wide range of technologies and expertise all available under one roof.

“You’re not going to find all this under one roof in the commercial market,” he said. “Here you have everything you need in one place,” said Brunelle.

Moore said a partnership with the Maryland State Police would be mutually beneficial.

“That’s the ultimate goal, for them to prove that this works for them,” he said. “For us, it’s just a matter of using our capabilities in a different way from our usual use, which could build readiness for the U.S. Army.”

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About the author
Jack L. Bunja is a project manager with the ECBC Communications Office.