3D bone modelling software may help police identify bodies

New software for making detailed 3D computer models of bones could one day help the police to identify bodies.

Dr Tim Thompson of Teesside University in Middlesbrough has created a program that uses data from a laser scanner to build a visually and texturally realistic representation of human bones.

The software has initially been designed to aid the teaching of subjects such as anthropology and biology, but could potentially speed up police investigations by making it easier to discover things about a person based on their skeleton.

‘We can talk about things such as sex, the age they were when they died, height and illnesses that leave a mark on the skeleton,’ Thompson told The Engineer.

‘We call that an osteological profile. And that’s very useful at certain parts of the investigation if you have a severely decomposed body — perhaps you can’t get fingerprints or use DNA.’

To create the software, Thompson, who worked with Darryl Okey of the Teesside Manufacturing Centre, had to find a way of reducing the data of the very detailed scans to a more usable size without losing important information.

‘The problem that we have with bone is that it’s a really difficult material to scan because it’s very porous and has all these very subtle morphological features,’ he said.

‘When you’re scanning bone, because of the nature of the material, you don’t get these smooth edges on the surface so you end up with extra data points. So we have to deal with that and tidy that up.’

Tim Thompson
Dr Tim Thompson’s software uses a laser scanner to build a 3D computer model of human bones, which could one day speed up police investigations

Thompson, who was highly commended for his work at the 2010 Blueprint Business Plan competition for innovation in the North East, has started a company called Anthronomics to market the software, initially to universities as a teaching tool.

In the future, he hopes to develop the technology to create osteological profiles that are robust enough for police to use as evidence in court.

The company may also look into developing hardware — for example, for reproducing the scans as physical models, possibly with the help of additive layer manufacturing, also known as 3D printing.