Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has received at least 300 applications for devices designed to win the war on terrorism. “Historically, when there is a cataclysmic event, there is a surge in inventor response,” says Richard Maulsby, public affairs officer at the agency. Among the newly minted patents is Boeing’s “intruder-proof flight deck door,” which secures an airplane’s cockpit from the cabin.
But behemoth companies aren’t the only ones procuring patents to guard the homeland. “Plenty of independent inventors redirected their energies to anti-terrorism inventions after 9/11,” says Andy Gibbs, CEO of PatentCafe, a developer of intellectual-property-management software. “Many now have patents to show for that.” Refrigeration technician cum inventor John R. Cunningham of Marathon, Florida, is now the proud holder of patent #6,646,270 for a germicidal mailbox that uses ultraviolet light to decontaminate rogue bills and junk mail. Creative, sure, but will it woo commercial interest? Probably not. (Cunningham notes that anthrax threats have tapered off, and so has interest in his mailbox.) “Just because you have an anti-terrorism patent doesn’t mean you have an anti-terrorism product—not by a long shot,” Gibbs says. Which would-be Edisons, if any, will make it big? Below, we evaluate a few contenders and their freshly patented anti-terror gadgets.
The Patent: Flying Airbag Jumpsuit
The Inventors: Jack Chen, Taipei, Taiwan; Patent #6,708,927
What It Is: Apparatus for slowly and safely descending from a high-rise building. Think flying Michelin Man.
How It Works: Zip into suit, inflate first set of airbags. Upon jumping, inflate secondary airbags; parachute releases.
Commercial Odds: 10,000 to 1: invention leaves little room for errors; requires unrealistically complex training courses.
The Patent: Germicidal Mailbox
The Inventors: John R. Cunningham, Marathon, Florida; Patent #6,646,270
What It Is: Standard mailbox outfitted with an ultraviolet light that radiates at a wavelength of 254 nanometers.
How It Works: Mail rotates inside an internal cage while 15-minute UV light cycle zaps spores and germs.
Commercial Odds: 25 to 1: the risk of falling ill from germy mail is slim; many post offices already irradiate mail.
The Patent: Suspicious-Object Container
The Inventors: Jerome Landy, Coral Gables, Florida; Keith Landy, Ormond Beach, Florida; Patent #6,595,247
What It Is: Portable cylindrical chamber with handling gloves and a port for a gas chromatograph.
How It Works: Device creates airtight seal over object and enables on-site examination and decontamination.
Commercial Odds: 2 to 1: big improvement over the typical portable containment system—garbage bags and duct tape.
The Patent: In-Flight Emergency Alert System
The Inventors: Joseph Cordina, Parker, Texas; Anthony Couzelis Plano, Texas; Patent #6,676,078
What It Is: Wireless system of hidden, wearable radio transmitters, an antenna in the cabin and a cockpit monitor.
How It Works: Attendants use wearable fobs to send coded emergency signals to cockpit and/or ground control.
Commercial Odds: 5 to 1: federal legislation requiring airlines to use wireless communication-alert devices is pending.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.