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How robots help solve crimes

Jan. 13, 2020

A lab technician carrying a tray of samples to a machine

So much of life is a choice between speed and quality, isn’t it? In just about any category – construction, food, clothing, just to name a few – it can generally be either fast or good, but not both. The same used to go for forensic testing and crime investigation. But the field of robotics has changed that situation drastically. Just look at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s (BCA) forensics labs.

When investigators are trying to solve a crime, there can be so much to analyze. Everything from blood samples to unknown substances need to be examined in case they contain the clue that could help crack the case. That’s where BCA forensic scientists, and their array of robots, come in.

For example the BCA has 14 gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) instruments. The BCA lab’s chemistry section uses them to figure out the chemical makeup of substances found at crime scenes. Robotic arms are attached to trays that can accommodate up to 150 sample vials. The scientist just has to program the arm, and then the machine can work independently. This frees up the scientist to do other things, thus maximizing productivity. Where before an attentive scientist had to use a syringe with a very steady hand, they now have a much faster process.

In the biology section, scientists use specialized robotic units to handle samples for forensic DNA analysis. The BCA has eight robots specifically designed to help process sexual assault evidence kits. There are also robotic units to help with the extraction of DNA from very difficult samples, such as human remains. And two new instruments are designed to process a sample and provide DNA results much more quickly than in a traditional laboratory.

The BCA’s toxicology laboratory – the lab where testing for alcohol or other controlled substances happens – has a robotic system for screening blood samples to see if they contain controlled substances (and if so, how much). It can handle up to about 90 samples at once, so it has sped up the processing of cases like DWIs. It does take oversight by a trained scientist, but it saves an enormous amount of time.

The way the BCA uses robotics at crime scenes might make you feel like you’re in an episode of CSI. They have a 3D scan station, which scans a crime scene and translates it into “point cloud,” which an agent can view on a computer screen. They can then “walk” or even “fly” through the crime scene, looking at it from different perspectives and locations.

Robotics have had a profound impact on the BCA’s forensics labs, allowing them to speed up their processes while still maintaining quality. This in turn helps Minnesota law enforcement agencies solve cases faster – and that means getting criminals off the streets faster, too.