A leap forward in forensic ballistics technology

With software like Pyramidal Technologies’ ALIAS system, the work of forensic ballistics experts stands to get much easier

By Drew Johnson
PoliceOne Contributor

Forensic ballistics has evolved considerably since the field came to prominence in the 1920s. Early experts discovered that firearms leave distinctive marks on bullets and cartridge cases, and since that discovery the science of ballistics research has essentially dealt with comparison: “This bullet bears marks similar to that one, therefore they must have been fired from the same gun.”

For many years, experts used a comparison microscope to measure the similarities between two or more bullets or cartridge cases, but since the 1980’s, ballistic scientists have relied on computer software that allows them to manipulate and compare images.

With software like Pyramidal Technologies’ ALIAS system, the work of forensic ballistics experts stands to get much easier.

The software is far ahead of the commonly used Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS), Mike Barrett, President and CEO of Pyramidal Technologies said. Barrett should know — he was the original developer of IBIS and has worked in the field of forensic ballistics for more than 25 years.

ALIAS creates vivid visualizations of casings or slugs that allow users to easily compare evidence with images in their database.

Using a high-end, Swiss-built interferometer, forensic ballistics experts capture and upload images of their evidence. Once the scans are uploaded, experts then use the ALIAS software to compare images in dozens of different ways. “You catalogue scans there, but you can also compare and filter them,” Barrett said. “ALIAS is essentially an intelligence tool.”

ALIAS’ images are incredibly clear, and Barrett says they offer a resolution of 2 microns, or 1/50th the diameter of a human hair. In addition to allowing users to display their scans in a variety of ways — like multi-colored typographical (pseudo color) images or images in grayscale, which makes tool marks easier to see and compare — ALIAS also offers the ability to compare 3-D images. This is a potential boon for departments awash in cold files with sometimes decades-old scans of forensic evidence.

The feature-rich software is deceptively easy to use, Barrett said, adding that one of the major differences between ALIAS and IBIS is the time it takes users to become comfortable with the software.

“IBIS requires one week of training,” Barrett said. “With ALIAS, you can be up and running in a few hours. We routinely do demonstrations around the world and by the time we’re done people are able to pick it up.”

Joe Vince, director of the criminal justice program at Mount St. Mary’s University and a former chief of the firearms branch at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that ALIAS was flexible enough to integrate data and make matches very quickly.

“It does it much quicker and faster than anything else,” Vince said. “It gives officers leads very quickly and allows detectives to close cases very quickly.”

Vince pointed to ALIAS’ development of a handheld device that will allow detectives at the crime scene to capture data and send it back to headquarters to begin the matching process.

And ALIAS isn’t closed, proprietary software. The system can accept and share information with different systems, making it very flexible.

“If you’ve got a place that’s a one-stop shop, that makes your job much easier,” Vince said. “I see this as the future. The idea that we can share this information so easily is huge.”

The software has exited the R&D phase, and Pyramidal has been touring the world giving demonstrations to departments. One of their next stops is in Jerusalem, where police there have difficulty matching steel, communist-era ammunition using their current system.

Barrett said that ALIAS is aggressively priced against its competitors, and unlike similar systems it doesn’t require any licensing fees. Over time, ALIAS can end up costing a third as much as a similar system.

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