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Innovation

NASA robot helps crack a murder case

Scientists and engineers used high-powered algorithms normally reserved for exploring asteroids and planets.
Written by Deborah Gage, Contributor

Scientists and engineers from NASA, Carnegie Mellon University and the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park lent the local district attorney's office a robot that helped solve a 19-year-old murder case, NASA has said.

The victim -- Dawn Sanchez, age 32 -- disappeared in 1991. She was last seen leaving the motel where she lived in Los Altos (near Silicon Valley) with Bernardo Bass. Bass was her boyfriend, according to The Charley Project, which profiles cold cases, and a witness reported that Bass shot Sanchez in a vacant lot after the two got into a fight.

But there was no evidence -- the gun, Bass's car and Sanchez's body were all missing -- so although the police arrested Bass for Sanchez's murder, they had to release him.

Years later, the case was re-opened after an informant told police that Bass's car may have been taken apart and buried in an abandoned lot in Alviso next to the San Francisco Bay. The lot was full of metal debris, so the Santa Clara County DA's office asked the USGS to help survey the lot.

The USGS in turn called the Payload Directed Flight research group at NASA Ames, which, along with Carnegie Mellon's Innovations Lab, was already developing "real-time processing algorithms and platforms for magnetic and ground penetrating radar sensors hosted on small autonomous aerial and ground vehicles [i.e. the robot] for intelligent autonomous Earth Science missions."

The three groups were also working with Senseta, a spin-off of Carnegie Mellon that designs robots.

From NASA:

In response to the DA’s request, the mixed team of scientists and engineers...deployed an instrumented Senseta MAX 5.0A rover hosting the research technologies under development, and mapped the magnetic environment of the survey area. The USGS received the processed data set, and after further post-processing, presented the county DA’s office with their analysis and possible locations for excavation.

Based on this data, the county excavated the site and retrieved car parts that matched the suspect’s car. Confronted with this evidence in court, on August 29, 2009, the suspect pleaded no contest to the charges, was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to six years in prison.

Several local TV stations last year reported on mysterious digging in Alviso and claimed that anonymous sources told them it was connected to the unsolved murder case. But few knew, until now, that the sleuthing was done by a robot.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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