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  • Applications: Forensics in 3-D

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Laser Scanning and Panoramic Photography

Laura S. Marshall,

"No piece of equipment can replace a smart investigator. The most important aspect of every investigation is the knowledge and capabilities of the detective,” said Sgt. Keith Johnson of the Albuquerque (N.M) Police Department. “If this is lacking, then no matter how many high-tech tools we use, the case will still be jeopardized.”

But cutting-edge crime scene documentation systems can help a lot. And the ScanStation 2 from Leica Geosystems AG of Unterentfelden, Switzerland, is on the cutting edge.

The 3-D laser scanning system uses a very high speed pulsed green laser to measure the two-way optical time of flight between itself and the objects being scanned; its integrated high-resolution digital camera produces a 360° panoramic view from a single pass. It also can produce real-time measurements, ballistic trajectory rod measurements, 2-D scene diagrams and animated simulations.

“The laser scanner has the ability to freeze a scene in time,” said Tony Grissim, Leica’s public safety and forensic account manager. “If, within a few years, every medium- to large-size police agency doesn’t have this equipment, they’re going to be regularly beaten in court by attorneys with the powerful 3-D imagery that can be created using these very simple, powerful methods.”

Defense attorneys sometimes hire consultants to develop 3-D simulations to boost their clients’ cases, he added: “If the police show up in court with a very simple 2-D diagram measured with a pocket tape and a ‘roll-a-guess’ wheel, and if the defense shows up with a 3-D fly-through that looks like a video game – it’s going to be like bringing a knife to a gunfight.”

The Leica system sells for about $160,000, according to Grissim. He said its ability to be used for a variety of cases – crime and accident scene investigation, officer-involved shooting investigations and even homeland security applications such as vulnerability and threat assessment – makes it well worth the investment.

One dramatic use for the scanner is stepping behind a witness’s eyes. “If you need to know what somebody saw from the window, you can look from the window,” said Cpl. Joseph Gabryluk of Pennsylvania State Police Troop J, based in Lancaster.

One of six Leica ScanStations owned by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) at the scene of a freeway overpass collapse following the explosion of a gasoline tanker truck. The CHP regularly uses the systems for major crash, crime scene and officer-involved shooting investigations. Courtesy of Leica Geosystems AG.

In Albuquerque, the police originally wanted a ScanStation “to speed up fatal accident investigations so that the city streets could be opened up quicker,” Johnson said. “The Criminalistics Unit pushed for control of the scanner because homicide cases typically receive the highest level of scrutiny from defense attorneys.”

A less-expensive 3-D option, ranging from about $40,000 to about $78,000, is the MK-3 from Panoscan Inc. of Van Nuys, Calif. The MK-3 is a digital panoramic camera that takes high-resolution pictures, designed to capture spherical (floor-to-ceiling, 360°) and cylindrical (360° horizontal) images.

Panoscan’s MK-3 digital panoramic camera takes high-resolution pictures, both spherical (floor-to-ceiling, 360°) and cylindrical (360° horizontal). Courtesy of Panoscan Inc.

“The MK-3 camera is more ‘objective’ in capturing the scene than traditional photography,” said Ted Chavalas, Panoscan president and CEO. “We have already seen cases where a critical item of evidence was captured in the Panoscan image that was missed by the other evidence photos.”

Photogrammetry, or measuring from images, is possible with the company’s PanoMetric software, Chavalas said. He admitted that laser scanners may be more accurate for photogrammetry at present but said the company is developing software designed to bridge that gap.

And it is not stopping at software innovation. Panoscan recently released a new LED lighting system for the MK-3, and the company offers an infrared LED kit for covert night shots.

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