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Times of India
15 March 2010

Researchers are going to create a robot that will let forensics experts perform a virtual autopsy without cutting open the body. This will help preserve the corpse if required for further investigation in the future
An illustration depicting how the machine will work
Ever since the CSI TV series hit the airwaves, everyone knows that forensic doctors use high-tech tools in their criminal investigations and computers to reconstruct how the crime or accident happened. Less well-known, on the other hand, is that the University of Bern’s Institute of Forensic Medicine actively pioneers innovations in forensics. Here in the “Virtopsy” laboratory, forensic autopsy techniques are undergoing further development. The coinage “virtopsy” stands for virtual autopsy and describes post-mortem examinations that are performed without cutting open the body of the deceased and solely on the basis of high definition magnetic resonance imagers (MRI) and computer tomography (CT).

Michael Thali and his team also use a specialised robot in their work. They call this forensic high-tech assistant Virtobot. In the Virtopsy laboratory, it projects a light bar onto the corpse being examined. The imaged body contours are recorded in high definition using a digital stereo camera. At the same time, the Virtobot images the texture of the skin.

“Then we harmonise these surface images with the 3D data of the entire body”, explains Lars Ebert, who programmed Virtobot.

Forensic doctors are thus provided with a high-precision, three-dimensional image of the body and can examine it on-screen from all angles, both externally and internally.

This combination of medical imaging, surgical navigation and robotics means that for the first time ever cadavers can be digitally preserved and autopsies conducted again, even years later, for instance when new evidence is turned up in an unsolved case.

Digitally captured data have meanwhile been approved as evidence in the courts, but only when validated by a conventional autopsy. In view of the precision and efficiency of the virtual autopsy, Michael Thali is convinced that the future of forensic medicine belongs to the Virtobot.

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