Forensic inspeck-tion

Police are to begin using an ultra-powerful video microscope originally developed for industrial inspection to help them spot vital forensic evidence.

The device, called the Microviper, was adapted for use by scenes of crime officers (SOCOs) by inspection and measurement equipment specialist PW Allen.

Police in the company’s home county of Gloucestershire have ordered six Microvipers, and PW Allen confirmed it was in discussions with several other forces around the UK.

The briefcase-sized unit provides magnification of up to x1,000, allowing officers to detect evidence such as hairs and fibres that might otherwise remain invisible. It can also spot microscopic semen or blood stains that could be used for DNA profiling, but which are extremely difficult for SOCOs to find.

Martin Lawrance, PW Allen’s development manager, said the Microviper was originally designed as a bench-top industrial inspection product. It is used in quality-assurance laboratories or at the end of production lines to identify invisible flaws in materials.

‘We believed there was a market for a portable version, but at that stage were still purely focused on industrial applications,’ said Lawrance.

However, PW Allen had worked with Gloucestershire police on other projects and the potential of the Microviper as a forensic examination tool ‘gradually crept up on us’, said Lawrance.

To capture its images, Microviper uses a flexible fibre-optic cable fitted with one of a range of specially designed lenses that can deliver magnification of between x20 and x1,000.

The cable, which can be used to poke around behind furniture and in other hard-to-reach places, illuminates the area under investigation with high intensity light from a metal halide arc lamp.

The Microviper then displays the image on its colour screen, allowing the operator to carry out a range of functions such as instant measurement and comparison with stored images.

Creating a portable version of the Microviper required considerable development of the basic product’s technology, said Lawrance. This included modifying the light source to allow it to operate efficiently under battery power and developing an internal computer hard-drive that can store images for transfer to other PCs back at police HQ.

‘We also needed to develop some calibration functionality that allows officers using the device to carry out detailed measurement of what they find,’ said Lawrance.

PW Allen claims the Microviper is the first time that powerful industrial inspection technology has been adapted for law enforcement purposes. The company is also pressing on with its original project of developing portable units suitable for use in industries such as automotive and aerospace.

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