3D Laser Scanning: The Future Has Arrived
Written by Dale Garrison   

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For years, prosecutors and law enforcement have fought the “CSI effect”—that is, jurors’ disappointment (and suspicion) if they do not find high-tech graphics and whiz-bang evidence presented in the courtroom. With expectations raised so high by forensics on television, jurors often assume better evidence must be readily available.


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Now it is.

Three-dimensional laser scanning is revolutionizing the collection of everything from accident-scene measurements to blood-spatter evidence at homicides. If size, shape, spatial relations or other three-dimensional factors are involved, 3D laser scanning can provide more evidence in seconds.

Quantum Leap

Three-dimensional laser scanning increases the detail of accident or crime scene investigation by many orders of magnitude, and does so with a substantial increase in speed.

David Dustin is president of Dustin Forensics, a digital animation and forensics firm based in Adairsville, Ga. He began producing forensic animations in 2002, initially working in vehicle accidents and then crime scene work. Like many, he began by taking measurements physically before using what were, at the time, state-of-the-art total stations. Although each advance improved the quantity of data points and fine-tuned the quality of his work, little prepared him for the impact 3D laser scanning would have on his job.

“I had a case five years ago where I was given laser-scan data for a homicide,” Dustin recalled. “I was immediately captivated. I realized it was going to be an immense resource.”

President of AI2-3D in Toronto, Canada, Eugene Liscio is another laser-scanning pioneer who believes the technology is only beginning to achieve its full potential. “It really helps give a jury or judge a feeling for the scene,” he said. “You can create an animation where you fly through a scene and view it from different perspectives. It’s tremendous.”

Millions of Points

Roughly the size of a large digital camera, a 3D scanner creates a cloud of plotted points for up to 80 yards around the position where it is placed. Unlike hand measurements or even more recent digital surveying equipment, it doesn’t measure one point at a time; it measures millions.

“The older total stations could do one point in about 10 seconds,” Liscio said. “A laser scanner can do a million in one second. In four minutes you’re capturing millions and millions of points. The amount of data you have is unbelievable, and it’s in color and it’s 3D.”

Back in the lab, the data can be used to create accurate 3D scenes or animations that plot with mathematical accuracy an accident or crime scene. These virtual images or animations can be used in court with dramatic results.

“If you show someone a drawing of a parking lot, it’s difficult for people to get a sense of the space,” Dustin noted. “The scan gives you a much better sense of the space.”

The cloud of data points also makes once-tedious calculations almost immediate. “You can determine almost instantly where a shooter had to be,” Liscio said. “You can quickly see where an impact would have occurred and eliminate irrelevant information. You can see how far it was from a gun to a door and reconstruct where a person may have been.” Annotations on spacing and other details can easily be added to provide further context.

A scanner’s size means it can be used almost anywhere. Dustin is credited with using a laser scanner inside a dumpster to record the position of discarded evidence. Scanners are already being used on robots with WiFi connections to further expand their applications. As scanners evolve, their use inside a human body during an autopsy is likely. After the data is gathered, it’s easily transferred via an SD card, just like a digital camera.

Few Drawbacks

Collecting data is similar to using a modern mobile phone, and the baseline training for field use may be lower than with previous techniques—although applying that data can be more involved. “There’s so much information that it allows you to do more,” Dustin explained. “That’s also why this technology will continue to evolve.”

When considering the implementation of a 3D laser scanner, the upfront cost might be an initial concern for some departments—but experts advise taking a look at a complete cost analysis before submitting to sticker shock. Units cost around $40,000, although that price tag has been trending downward as the technology is more rapidly adopted. Richard Britt is an account manager with FARO Technologies, manufacturer of one of the leading 3D laser scanning systems. He emphasized that cost evaluations should include real-world savings.

“Yes, there is a significant initial purchase cost, but the return on investment is so significant that the initial investment is often overshadowed. With older equipment, you may need a couple of hours to collect 50 reference points. This technology can collect 900,000 in one second.”

In real-world situations, that means a highway accident can be investigated in a fraction of the time it once took, reducing traffic problems and improving safety. “You don’t have to shut down a highway for four hours to map out a collision,” he said. “You’ll be done by the time the tow trucks get there.”

Even better, the compact 3D laser scanner is truly a single-person operation, compared to a five- or six-person team. “This is easy to move and reposition,” Britt noted. “It saves time and money.”

Courtroom Ready

Although the technology is user-friendly, an operator’s competence with the equipment is critical, especially when the evidence is presented in the courtroom. Training is usually available from manufacturers. FARO, for example, offers two options: three- and five-day programs. “It’s a new technology,” Liscio said. “Especially when you go to court, you want to know the operator has training and followed proper procedures in collecting evidence.”

The biggest challenge may be mentally grasping the quantum leap in technology and how best to use it. “When you’re capturing data, you want to make sure you capture all of the important things,” Dustin said. “You have to be forward thinking. If you believe you have all of the evidence for a given scene, you probably want to think beyond that. If you’re inside a building, don’t ignore the exterior. Think outside the box.”

The results are worth it. Dustin recalled one of his first applications involved a gang shooting in Georgia where he helped prosecutors present crime scene animations to a jury. “When you see their faces as you immerse them in the crime scene, it’s a game changer,” he said. “This levels the playing field.”

 
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