How a machine called Conan will help to investigate knife crime
13 Mar 2018
Conan, a revolutionary new forensic tool developed by UTS and the Australian Federal Police, is helping to make knife crime investigation easier
The instrument, which produces standardised, reproducible stab actions, will be used to establish a textile damage database so investigators can objectively examine textile damage patterns in stab events
As gestations go, it’s right up there with elephants. After 18 months of painstaking work, the UTS Centre for Forensic Science (CFS) has farewelled one of the most unusual instruments to come out of its lab – a stabbing machine called Conan.
For police investigating knife crime, understanding how blades penetrate and damage fabric is crucial. Thanks to a partnership between UTS and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the development of this revolutionary new forensic tool that just became a whole lot easier.
In 2014, AFP forensic chemist and UTS alumna Kate Sloan contacted Centre for Forensic Science director Claude Roux because they wanted to develop a machine to help understand how factors such as the force and angle of the blade influence the patterns knives make in fabrics.
Investigators can already tell a lot about a crime by looking at textile damage, but the manual testing currently used to re-create stabbing events can be both difficult and time-consuming. The aim of the AFP and the UTS researchers was to build an instrument to help establish a textile damage database so investigators can objectively examine textile damage patterns in stab events.
In 2014, Natasha Benson (now a PhD candidate in the Centre for Forensic Science) leapt at the chance to take on the project for her honours year. Since then, she has worked with Sloan, Roux and Centre for Forensic Science researcher Lucas Blanes to develop, test and validate the machine.
“I’d always wanted to work with the AFP and for me it was by far the most interesting project on the list of possible honours topics,” Benson says.
“Because I'm not a trained engineer, I see myself as a bit of a ‘barbaric engineer’. Hence the name Conan, after ‘Conan the Barbarian’ of course.”
Conan, a mechanical and electronic marvel now “living” in a new AFP purpose-built forensic facility in Canberra, is a world first. The computer-controlled technology is able to produce standardised, reproducible stab actions, improving the accuracy and precision of simulated textile cuts.
It also features an interchangeable knife holder that is compatible with different types of knives and blades, and a motorised arm that can deliver 60 unique and angled stabbing positions. Conan, living up to its name, can be programmed to generate enough force to penetrate human flesh and several layers of clothing.
With Blanes as a co-supervisor, Benson was in safe hands. The Brazilian-born Blanes couples his training in biology, biochemistry and analytical chemistry with an affinity for mechanics, electronics and problem solving. Within the centre he’s well known for his MacGyver-like skills and mantra that “with duct tape you can do magic”.
“The challenge,” says Blanes, “was to build something new. We’d never seen it before; we didn’t have a model. Until now, the closest thing was either a guillotine-like instrument or a knife with sensors. But we needed something easy to use that was also safe, economical and robust.
“The technology will fill in gaps in textile damage analysis by providing reference standards that can be used in forensic casework”
Budgetary constraints and a tight 12-month honours timeline meant the scientists needed to be especially creative. Conventional moving platforms, known as axis stages, that tilt and spin through multiple planes, were well outside the project’s budget.
“I decided to search the internet and, amazingly, the type of platforms I needed were available for a fraction of the cost,” Benson says.
For Blanes, who has previously built working instruments using LEGO blocks, the challenges were to incorporate a range of factors that influence stab events, to overcome safety issues, and to maintain the integrity of the knives that would need to be used as evidence in real cases.
Many trips to the local hardware store for hinges and hardware ensued, as did forays into electronic and software development. Finally, the prototype Conan morphed into a fully fledged investigative tool ready to be put to practical use fighting crime.
So what are Benson and Blanes doing now that Conan has left UTS, and Blanes has returned to Brazil? The pair are continuing to work together as student and co-supervisor. Benson’s current research is on “lab-on-a-chip” explosives detection technology.
“It’s about the detection of explosives by miniaturising laboratory processes into small paper-based platforms, smaller than the size of your hand, for rapid, automated and in-field detection,” Benson says.