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Supporting STEM undergraduates - everyone’s a winner

29 January 2024
Final-year engineering students (L-R): Michael, Fouad, Sebastian and Luke present their 3D mask fabrication system at Ingenuity 2023.
Final-year engineering students (L-R): Michael, Fouad, Sebastian and Luke present their 3D mask fabrication system at Ingenuity 2023.

DSTG has a long history of working with universities to support student projects that benefit our work programs. Recently we joined with industry partner Fusetec to sponsor a team of four University of Adelaide engineering students to complete their Honours project at the pointy end of identity spoofing.

Exploring the world of physical and digital identity spoofing can be confronting at times, but students Sebastian, Luke, Fouad and Michael tackled the problem with enthusiasm, energy, and an excellent methodical approach.

Facing up to new tech implications

Familiarity with the workings of identity authentication and verification algorithms laid the groundwork for DSTG supervisor Dr Monique Kardos's initial idea to produce next generation masks using new 3D printing materials and techniques. Dr Kardos helped the students and academic staff to scope a project of interest to the students, DSTG researchers, and local printing company Fusetec.

The overarching goal of the student project was to investigate whether current 3D printing techniques could be leveraged to create face masks capable of fooling current facial recognition systems.

Read more: Defence scientists have enhanced a facial recognition algorithm, improving the odds of identifying someone in adverse environments

Initially, the students conducted a thorough review of current literature in 3D anatomical printing, new 3D printing materials, mechanical characteristics of such materials, and facial identification and liveness.

Supported by the project sponsors, the students quickly became proficient in the use of 3D scanning technology and were soon producing their test materials. Associate Professors Ling Yin and Brian Ng, from the University of Adelaide's School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, provided excellent guidance for the students. Professor Yin advised on the in-depth engineering aspects of the project, and introduced the team to local 3D printing company Fusetec, with whom Professor Yin has a long-standing working relationship. Professor Ng advised on imagery and video analysis. DSTG defence scientist Dr Gary Hanly supported the project with technical advice and provision of 3D scanners. Finally, Janelle Orwa and Nicole Fernandes from Fusetec kindly provided additional technical advice and assistance.

Learn more: Looking to partner with us? Discover how industry, universities and the scientific community can partner with DSTG

The student team obtained and validated high-fidelity scans of individuals, selected appropriate printing materials analogous to human skin, assessed the mechanical properties of the masks, and implemented a CAD-to-facial-mask pipeline using anatomical 3D printers at Fusetec.

The masks were printed with increasingly realistic colours and textures, and were tested against several open source and commercial identification algorithms to ascertain spoofing performance.

After several evolutions in the printing process, the students successfully used 3D printed masks of each other to fool facial recognition algorithms and unlock each other's phones.

The final version of masks 3D-printed in colour by industry partner Fusetech. The masks of (L-R): Fouad, Luke, 
</p><center>Michael and Sebastian were realistic enough to trick facial recognition algorithms.

Investment in students pays off

According to Dr Kardos there are several benefits of investing time and money in student projects like this, including:

  • Teams of bright students contribute to research efforts that benefit Australia. Collaborating with the four engineering students allowed us to pursue a valuable research path that would otherwise have been difficult to realise.
  • Experience working with DSTG can lead to an awareness of the exciting career opportunities in Defence. Some of our most talented staff have arrived here after involvement with DSTG projects during their studies.
  • Projects like this reinforce the fact that DSTG can deliver valuable outcomes to their clients in a variety of ways, with one of the most important being practical outcomes that support clients in doing their business, and inform them of potentially critical changes to their operating environment.

Dr Kardos says a big positive is working with a bright group of students who are self-starters and show a lot of initiative and problem solving ability. ‘It’s extremely satisfying, and allows the achievement of goals that benefit them as well as us,’ she says. ‘We’re keen to keep the project going across multiple years and progress towards the ideal “end state” in terms of producing spoofing tools for testing and evaluation. The arms race between identity spoofing and detection is still running at a phenomenal pace, and keeping on top of these developments is a critical aspect benefitting our clients and Australian society.’

‘Even if the students end up in other sectors outside of Defence, there is always the satisfaction of having seen them through a challenging year and watching them develop skills that will effectively take them through the rest of their careers.’

To top off their project success, the students received First Prize in the Mechanical Engineering category at the University of Adelaide’s Ingenuity 2023 event.

Team members Sebastian and Luke have been fortunate to be supported through some of their studies as Defence STEM cadets and are now bringing that enthusiasm and energy to DSTG in permanent defence scientist positions.

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