TU Delft and NFI join forces to innovate forensic research

News - 01 April 2021

How does a person fall after jumping or being pushed? How can you effectively investigate a crime scene? Can a computer model determine the time of death? And what is an effective way of collecting all the evidence from a phone? These are just some examples of the joint research currently being conducted by TU Delft and the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI). The partnership is now further strengthened by the signing of a joint memorandum of understanding.

“Investing in R&D and innovation is essential for ensuring that the NFI is and remains at the cutting edge,” says Dr Annemieke de Vries, Director of Science and Technology at the NFI. In the world of forensics, developments move at an incredibly rapid pace. “Take, for example, the increased digitisation and new techniques for encrypting information. In order to be prepared for the forensic challenges of the future, we need to continually invest and innovate. TU Delft is an important partner for the NFI, because technology, and especially new technology, plays a key role in forensic research. The university of technology is often at the forefront of new developments that may prove useful in criminal investigations. Our role then involves researching whether what is developed can be practically applied in forensics.” Professor Aukje Hassoldt, Dean of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management at TU Delft, agrees. She adds: “Joining forces as two knowledge institutions in this way enables us to achieve new scientific insights and innovations more rapidly and more effectively. It also helps us to strengthen our bonds with key partners, such as the Public Prosecution Service and the police.”

Valuable partnership

Researchers from the NFI and TU Delft have a long history of cooperation in the field of forensic scientific research. For example, TU Delft and the NFI are currently collaborating on the Icarus project. The project is exploring the potential of using a biomechanical human model as a way of reconstructing what happened when someone falls or is a victim of violence. It could also be used to test out the potential scenarios at a crime scene. One example of the issues at play is the following: Did the dead person fall downstairs, was he pushed or did he not fall at all, but was later placed at the bottom of the stairs to make it look like an accident? For the purposes of detection, it is important to gain clarity on this as quickly as possible to enable the right choices to be made in an investigation. Currently, a TU Delft internship student is working with NFI researchers to investigate whether a human model used widely in safety studies in the automotive industry could also be used for the forensic reconstruction of pushes and falls at a crime scene.

Other examples

As part of the European Formobile project, TU Delft and the NFI are currently developing tools to quickly extract as much usable data as possible from phones. This includes developing new methods for accessing encrypted data or making a smarter selection of the available data by combining different pieces of evidence with each other. In the Therminus project, scientists from TU Delft are working with the NFI to investigate whether an even better model can be developed for determining the time of death as accurately as possible. At present it is the pathologist who determines the time of death of the deceased. The new programme being developed takes much better account of the individual and their immediate surroundings. It also attempts as far as possible to factor in the victim’s weight and body composition, or to take into account the amount of fatty tissue, for example. The model also looks at environmental factors, such as the heat conduction of the clothing and the ground. Readings are taken of the victim’s temperature at various places on the body, as well as the ambient temperature.

Pursuing the partnership further

TU Delft and the NFI will jointly explore new fields of research in order to achieve pioneering research, catalyse innovations and attract talent. Areas being investigated include data science and the ethical use of artificial intelligence (AI). Work is also being done to improve the way in which scenarios are visualised, in addition, of course, to other research in the fields of physics, chemistry, mechanics and biomechanics. The effect of new technological developments and increased digitisation in forensic issues calls for more concerted efforts than ever by the NFI and TU Delft to develop and apply knowledge. The signing of the MoU officially marked the commitment by both organisations to strengthen and expand their strategic partnership: “We intend to collaborate on more than just research,” says Hassoldt: “For example, the NFI can offer students internships, we can arrange for NFI experts to give lectures and we want staff to become acquainted with each other’s research from the inside.”

Cooperation with several partners

Alongside this intensified partnership, the NFI and TU Delft obviously also work with other partners, including their partners in forensics the Public Prosecution Service and the police, and other universities in the Netherlands and abroad. “We’re always on the look-out for opportunities to optimise forensic research with partners like the police, as well as universities and network organisations, such as the Co van Ledden Hulsebosch Center (CLHC). By working together with others, we can access expertise that we do not have ourselves,” says de Vries. “For innovative research, a direct link with practical forensics is essential. So collaboration fits in with the vision on forensic research”.

When will the partnership be deemed a success? De Vries: “When NFI staff and researchers from TU Delft are able to collaborate even more effectively, giving a new boost to their scientific research. Joint research produces new insights and generates energy. It would be great if we could introduce some concrete innovations into our investigation work in the coming years.”