Jake Anderson is a true-crime journalist, author, editor, and filmmaker. Always in search mode.
According to World Bank statistics, approximately 1,130 people die each day from homicide. Every 90 seconds or so, someone is murdered somewhere on our planet.
Ideally, each of these crimes is investigated by the police and adjudicated in a court of law. That requires a tremendous amount of time, money, and resources.
In the United States, which has one of the Western world’s lowest clearance rates, roughly 40% of homicides go unsolved.
During the first two decades of the 21st century, law enforcement communities adopted a wide variety of technologies with the potential to improve investigative techniques and missing person searches.
This includes facial recognition software, GPS, robotics, cell phone triangulation, biometrics, DNA/genealogy databases, cloud surveillance, artificial intelligence algorithms, smart tech, and high-resolution photography/video.
In this article, we're going to look at five specific tech innovations in the field of forensic science that are changing the face of criminal investigations and may help to crack decades-old cold cases and unsolved murders.
Foliage-Analyzing Drones That Detect Buried Human Remains
The use of drones is already pretty ubiquitous in law enforcement with a number of applications. One of the more stunning (and disturbing) uses came in 2016 when Dallas police used a robotic drone to assassinate an active sniper who had shot five officers.
Putting aside the question of whether drone usage represents an escalation of draconian police tactics, the aerial technology has been successfully utilized by police and SAR searchers in many missing person investigations and has also assisted firefighters.
But the full potential of unmanned aerial drones could go much further, a recent proposal suggests, involving a convergence of science, technology, and law enforcement. The research outlines the use of drones to study "cadaver decomposition islands," which refers to the area surrounding a human corpse.
Scientists believe that foliage-analyzing drones can detect nutrient composition in the soil to identify the presence of decomposing human remains. The remotely controlled aerial robots use thermal imaging and a forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) to analyze spectral responses and fluorescence signatures in trees, shrubs, and plants, as well as larval aggregation (maggots feasting on the corpse).
All of this information is gathered while the drone is hundreds of yards above. The proposed instruments, which measure the foliage’s reaction to nitrogen, are so accurate they can determine if the buried remains belong to a person who smoked cigarettes.
While drones and robots still can’t compete with the natural olfactory power of cadaver dogs, this technology could assist ground searches in areas with thick tree and vegetation cover and could help to significantly winnow down a search area, potentially revolutionizing grid search operations.
Forensic researchers also believe aerial drones equipped with remote sensing technology, such as light detection and ranging, or Lidar, could be used to find previously unidentified mass graves.
DNA-Barcoded Pollen Grains as Biomarkers
Though it sounds utterly improbable, forensics experts believe palynology—the study of pollen—could soon be used in criminal investigations.
Pollen has long been established as a highly accurate biomarker that is incredibly durable and allows scientists to pinpoint specific times and places. Paleontologists regularly study fossilized pollen grains to gain insight into prehistoric plant life.
Pollen morphology techniques utilizing electron microscopy and DNA barcoding hold huge potential for forensic palynology in criminal investigations. Researchers say pollen biomarkers could help police link people (suspects in criminal cases), objects (murder weapons or other evidentiary artifacts), and places (crime scenes and travel routes) long after the fact.
Pollen biomarkers have already been useful in cases that involve evidence/bodies being moved from one location to another. Interestingly, the same investigation that discovered the mass graves in Bosnia by deploying the above-mentioned remote drone technology also used pollen to track and link the movement of bodies.
While this technique is challenging due to the very low number of working forensic palynologists (one) and the mammoth number of plant species (400,000), researchers believe pollen biomarkers will be routinely presented as evidence in future criminal investigations.
Replicating Evidence With 3D Printing
3D printing still hasn’t yet seen widespread commercial adoption, but the technology is evolving and has already been proffered as forensic evidence in criminal cases.
The first use of 3D printing in a criminal investigation was in England, where prosecutors secured a homicide conviction by replicating the murder weapon. In another, particularly gruesome case, investigators used 3D printing during jury presentation to replace the gory crime scene photos with less-disturbing replicas of body parts.
Additionally, crime scene technicians who have access to evidentiary photographs use 3D printing and photogrammetry software to create exact replicas of footprints or other impressions that might otherwise be degraded or deteriorated.
But this is just the beginning. As the technology advances, 3D printing may be able to replicate additional lines of evidence and even recover latent prints and DNA. It could also bolster the rise of advanced facial recognition techniques.
Ironically, 3D printing is leveraged by criminals in the commission of crimes, too. Inexpensive versions of the tech can manufacture unlicensed, untraceable weapons made of covert, lightweight materials (a feat memorably portrayed in the 1993 film In the Line of Fire, in which the president’s would-be assassin, played by John Malkovich, makes a resin composite gun that can evade metal detectors).
In the future, hi-tech criminals may even be able to use this technology to transform materials like thermoplastic polyurethane and nylon into replicas of fingerprints or eyeballs and circumvent biometric security systems.
Bloodless Virtual Autopsies
Autopsies are one of the most crucial stages of a criminal investigation and are often the pivotal factor in whether a suspect is charged. A coroner or medical examiner has the job of not only determining a cause and manner of death but identifying and preserving the integrity of biological forensic evidence, such as foreign substances, body fluids, skin cells, and DNA. And, in some cases, they must try to do this with only a few skeletal remains.
After decades of development, forensic scientists in Europe have begun implementing a groundbreaking technology to assist traditional medical examinations in criminal cases.
The “Virtopsy,” or virtual autopsy, is a highly specialized “quantitative synthetic MRI” that combines the conventional MRI with computed tomography (CT) and surface scans. The software analyzes a victim’s body and converts each layer of soft tissue into data sets comprising a 3D virtualized simulation.
The coroner can then discretely inspect any part of the body on a microscopic scale without the obstruction of skin or muscle and without the use of a scalpel.
Researchers say the “virtobot” tool is capable of probing the hardest-to-reach crannies of a deceased human body and detecting injuries like lesions, impacts, hemorrhages, fractures, and heart attacks that can be difficult to observe with a traditional autopsy.
Forensic scientists believe these bloodless virtual autopsies will allow investigators to reopen and solve cases with undetermined causes of death.
AI Algorithms for Crime Scene Analysis
Algorithmic forecasting in the nascent field of predictive policing has drawn controversy among civil liberty advocates. However, computer scientists say artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and neural networks will be game-changing investigative tools.
Investigators are already adopting the technology to identify missing children and break up human trafficking networks. About 200 U.S. law enforcement agencies use an AI algorithm to search the internet and dark web for potential sex trafficking and abuse victims. The Department of Defense is currently integrating the same tool to investigate narcotics, illegal weapons sales, and counterfeit goods.
A computer scientist working with the Spanish National Cybersecurity Institute INCIBE is developing an AI pattern-recognition algorithm that will scan police photographs of evidence and see if there are connections to other cases. It will also analyze CCTV footage, computer files, and crime reports to connect any dots that detectives may have missed.
Another image-analyzing algorithm counts microscopic particles on a suspect’s shoe soles. Information about groundcover, gunshot residues, or even pollen grains, which we discussed above as an important forensic biomarker in criminal investigations, helps police create more accurate timelines and maps of a criminal’s movements.
Computer scientist Xin Lin has developed an algorithm that studies a photograph of a person’s face and makes a 3D reconstruction of their skull, which could help solve cases with unidentified victims. Xi believes this technology will be a huge asset to forensic anthropology. Such an algorithm could also assist in the creation of cadaver simulations for the aforementioned virtual autopsies.
Additionally, researchers say AI algorithms will be hugely beneficial in DNA analysis, which is a laborious and error-prone process for human technicians.
Given the massive backlog of unsolved crimes and unprocessed evidence kits, one can imagine these automated machine detectives being unleashed on thousands of cold cases. Sometimes all it takes is one microscopic detail.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.