Robots Will Help ID Malaysia Airlines Victims

People walking amongst burning debris at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine.

People walking amongst burning debris at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine. Dmitry Lovetsky/AP File Photo

A world leader in forensics now must quickly and accurately identify its own countrymen and international victims.

The Netherlands, long a world leader in forensics, is now tasked with identifying 193 of its own citizens, who perished in the MH17 crash, and will rely on a robotic system to do so quickly. It is somewhat fortunate the nation hurt most by the tragedy is at the cutting edge of DNA-profiling. But authorities warn identification could take months because all the remains have not been recovered.  

The Netherlands Forensic Institute, a nonprofit, government-owned agency, has been tapped to head the DNA-matching portion of the effort. The FBI is pitching in for the fingerprint ID process. The overall endeavor to identify all 298 MH17 passengers and crew is being led by international experts from the Dutch National Forensic Investigations Team.

The institute's automaton, named Bonaparte, serves exclusively to identify victims of large-scale disasters on short notice. The software proved its mettle after a 2001 Afriqiyah Airways crash in Tripoli. The accident left 103 people dead with little identifying evidence to go on. Human analysts would have needed more than three months to identify fatalities. The software helped analysts name the victims in less than three weeks. 

Bonaparte crunches data extracted from the genetic material in bodies as well as international DNA databases to find one-to-one matches and “pedigree matches,” or links derived from family trees. Software development, which began in 2008, was aided by the Radboud University Nijmege. 

"The time for uncertainty had to be minimized and the chances for wrong matches had to be brought back to a minimum," institute spokeswoman Eef Herregodts told Nextgov. "By using an automated system, human error has been eliminated." 

For the current task, matchmaking will involve DNA analysis of parents, children and siblings of the victims, as well as the victims themselves. Identity also can be established based on fingerprints and dental records.

"FBI has offered their assistance in the identification process," Dutch Police spokesman Paul Koetsier told Nextgov on Thursday. "At the moment, we have accepted the knowledge of one [FBI] fingerprint expert purely for the identification process. If needed, we can call for more experts."

Later in the day, FBI Special Agent Ann Todd confirmed the bureau is offering forensics assistance at the request of international partners. The FBI Laboratory is "providing limited technical assistance to the Dutch victim identification operation, but does not have a lead role,” she told Nextgov.

With Bonaparte, each genetic sample is processed within a couple of days, according to the institute. Matchmaking has sped up from days to minutes.  

"The only manual step in the process consists of entering the data of the DNA profiles," Herregodts said. Bonaparte draws on "mathematical probabilistic” methods.

The lead forensics investigative team includes about a dozen experts from Germany, eight from the United Kingdom, 12 from Belgium, 10 from Australia, two from Canada, one from Brazil, and 25 from the Netherlands.

Koetsier could not comment of the cost of identifying everyone. Updates on the effort will be posted online, he said.