Decade Of Disruption: 9/11-Inspired Innovation

The 9/11 attacks shook up more than the world’s psyche, and have led to a raft of new inventions and futuristic tech designed to prevent similar terrorism in the future–from iRobots to full body scanners. These too have an ongoing mission to change our life.

Decade Of Disruption: 9/11-Inspired Innovation


Some of the innovations resulting from 9/11 stemmed directly from the terrible events, while others would’ve happened anyway, just in slower time if their development hadn’t been spurred on. Some are unquestionably positive, others have subtle social consequences that may mean they’re seen in a negative light. So we’ll start with the good, and you can see where your milage varies as the list progresses into more uncomfortable domains.


When it came to the task of digging through the rubble of the Twin Towers, humans were for one of the first times ever working alongside robots: Packbots made by iRobot under a DARPA research fund, were “literally pulled out of the laboratory and taken to 9/11.” The devices were strong, maneuverable and could work in precarious positions, small spaces and among dust and debris that was dangerous to humans without suffering side effects, and their sensors could let human rescuers see better into the debris in the search for victims.

Since then the Packbots and a fleet of similar remote control and semi-autonomous drone robots have been advanced and polished, becoming ever more useful in both military, crime-fighting and disaster situations. iRobot’s Packbots, in particular, have since been used in the cleanup of the Gulf oil spill, the cleanup and investigation of the reactor meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, as well as a “string of bank robberies in the Boston area,” an iRobot spokesman tells Fast Company. This tech will only continue to get smarter–enabling both safer and smarter disaster recovery, and possibly military and police actions to prevent future terrorism.

Social Networking And Crowd Journalism


It’s hard to remember, but in 2001 the Net wasn’t the fully interactive Web 2.0 place it is today. Social media sharing wasn’t ubiquitous, digital photography and videography were still the preserve of well-off professionals, and news-breaking via social networks connected to by smartphone was a distant dream. The citizen reporter was less of a phenomenon. Many of the world-changing images of 9/11 came from official news crews, police cameras, and the occasional digitally equipped amateur.

Now we’ve seen the rise of the smartphone, and digital camera revolutions mean the greater majority of a crowd in almost any developed nation has a camera on them at the moment–it’s why the Japanese tsunami and earthquake disaster was accompanied by so many chilling images and videos. Twitter spreads news faster than traditional journalism, and in situations like the Hudson river plane crash it actually breaks news. In recent U.S. natural disasters, social networks have been embraced by officials as a way of efficiently sharing emergency information.

Then there’s Meetup, a young company that facilitates in-person group meetings centered on a common shared theme among people who usually meet online. Its founder Scott Heiferman just emailed his staff to relate how the whole idea sprang from the unusually neighborly activity he observed in New York after 9/11. 10 million users later, he notes “It’s a wonderful revolution in local community and “Meetups aren’t about 9/11, but they may not be happening if it weren’t for 9/11”.

Better Translation Software

9/11 resulted in a burst of expeditionary military action on behalf of the U.S. and its allies, and war has often been the mother of invention. One unexpected beneficial tech that’s sprung from the added billions of dollars of defense spending has been better automatic translation technology, developed to aid soldiers interact with locals on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan–after all, your average soldier may have a smattering of a second languge like Spanish or French, but is less likely to know any Farsi or Pashtu.


Pushing the technology are numerous research funds, including DARPA’s Language and Speech Exploitation Resources (LASER) program, which aims to provide soldiers with software and tech to help them interact with people in more obscure languages. Another device, Lockheed Martin’s LinGO, is like a customized smartphone that connects troops in the field over secure lines to a bank of translators so real-time human translation can happen. Clever systems like this, along with non-defense efforts by companies like Google, show how we’re progressing toward a Star Trek-like universal translator.

Better Skyscraper Design

The inquiry into why the World Trade Center towers collapsed uncovered a few weaknesses in the way such tall buildings were designed and manufactured in terms of both their structure and how to efficiently evacuate people in a disaster.

Now buildings like the 1 World Trade Center building, rising week by week from Ground Zero itself, are designed to be much stronger–with steel floor structures that are designed to resist catastrophic collapse if even one should fail, and better protected and larger evacuation stairways. Innovations in elevator design mean that in a similar disaster, occupants of skyscrapers could take special fast “lifeboat” elevators to the ground to escape.

CT Scanners


Airport hand luggage X-ray scanners are powerful and successful technology–every day they let customs officials prevent potentially dangerous or illegal items onto aircraft. But they’re not 100% foolproof, and their falibility comes from their two-dimensional scans as much as weakness on behalf of operators or the security procedures currently in place. That’s something GE and L3 Communications want to change, as they’ve developed smaller versions of the CT 3-D scanning tech used in hospitals, for airport and other checkpoints. Over 1,000 of the machines are in use across the U.S. and the world, delivering scans that tell an official in much more detail about the contents of a carry-on bag–with the ability to spot perhaps disguised weapons that may elude a more traditional 2-D scanner.

Police And Firefighter Radios

One of the failings in 9/11 disaster response plans, and subsequent events like Hurricane Katrina, was that radio communications between emergency forces like police and firefighters were weak, and didn’t allow for cross-force coordinated responses. The Department of Justice has since funded technology like that developed by HCS Technologies, like Respond Comm, a system that lets all the different forces communicate with each other in a coordinated way, with much greater network resilience (including self-sustaining communications masts with solar cells and hydrogen fuel cells), and the ability to not only share voice calls but also digital data like building plans.

Wireless Tech For FBI

The FBI of 2001 wasn’t the smartphone-touting, crime-scene laser-scanning group you see in TV shows, hampering their ability to use technology in the field to identify potentially suspicious activity and persons. They didn’t really have mobile wireless devices like smartphones until a pilot program in 2005. In 2008 the FBI purchased nearly 20,000 BlackBerry phones to let field agents around the world have on-the-go access to no-fly lists, kidnapped and wanted persons data, and even to snap images of suspects which could be compared to databases back at base in real-time. So far has the FBI come in utilizing modern mobile technology that it’s even recently released its own iPhone app, ChildID–designed to help parents of lost children share important information with the FBI in charge of the case.


Airport Body Scanners

Airport body scanners are controversial, and indeed Germany has just ruled that they’re too unreliable and socially risky to implement right now, but they do offer a degree of protection that is otherwise difficult to attain: They can show a security operative if a traveler is carrying a concealed object that could be used as a weapon, even spotting exotic technologies like ceramic knives that would elude a metal detector.

There are two competing technologies, backscatter X-ray and millimeter wave, and both systems are continually being researched and advanced so that they’re better at resolving hidden objects and so that precious personal privacy is preserved: U.K. scientists have worked out how to portray the scanned image in a cartoon-like format.

Military Tech: Lasers, Drones and Exoskeletons


During operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that have their political roots in the 9/11 attacks, U.S. and allied military forces have been field-testing cutting-edge weapons and surveillance systems at an almost unprecedented rate. Every conceivable device from laser weapons to seagull-like surveillance drones, to modified stealth Black Hawk helicopters to exoskeletons to give near-future soldiers superhuman-like powers has been developed and, in many cases, actually used in conflict.

Crowd Surveillance and Bio-Monitoring

Surveillance cameras are becoming more ubiquitous in the U.S., following British thinking that cameras can spot suspicious activity before a terrorist attack or other criminal act happens. The technology didn’t help the U.K. prevent the recent multi-city riots and looting, but it (along with efforts to crowd-source identify some of the criminals) definitely helped mop up afterwards. Surveillance of crowds can also go wrong, as these stories of questioning and seemingly wrongful detention of “suspicious” people at the Mall of America show.


Other technologies are under development, to give security officials surveilling crowds the ability to automatically detect biologial “markers” for suspicious activity, including the ability to detect someone’s facial expression and thus decide if a human officer should intervene. As cameras increase in number, this kind of automated system is only going to become more prevalent.

Future Tech: Dazzle Guns, Remote Control Airliners, Missile Disrupters

How would you feel flying in an airliner that, in the event of a hijack, would lock down cockpit controls and return to land via an unhackable remote-control systems, like Boeing has planned? Or as a passenger aboard a plane where a plainclothes air marshall carried a pulse flash gun that could knock out a threatening passenger in a potential hijack situation? Would you rest easier aboard a long-distance flight knowing that a missile disrupter was protecting your airliner from incoming missile assault from a stolen ground-to-air missile? All of these systems may come online in the near future, owing their existence to the events of 9/11 in some way.

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)