Could Drones Have Changed the Outcome of the 9/11 Attack on the Twin Towers?


9/11; the moniker still continues to stir tense feelings 15 years. I had lived in Lower Manhattan in New York City for almost two years. I looked at the Twin Towers every day when I walked out my front door. I had been to events at Window's on the World, lingered in the World Trade Center (WTC) plaza, and often simply admired these iconic landmarks with quiet pride for what they represented. I left New York on the morning of September 1, 2001 to move back to Miami. Little did I know the world would never be the same. The topic of 9/11 has been analyzed, reviewed, debated, and remembered at length by a wide range of scholars, pundits, scientists, and a wide range of other assorted experts. As we remember the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, one questions lingers in my mind; could modern UAV (drone) technology in some way have made an impact on the final outcome of those nefarious events at the World Trade Center, and if so, how?

It is somewhat difficult to reflect back to the technology of circa 2001. The closest thing to a smartphone was a Motorola flip-phone, notebook computers were bulky and heavy, floppy disks were still widely used, Napster was the music sharing service of choice, Facebook did not even exist, and most people still connected to the Internet via AOL's dial-up service. "You've got mail!" The thought of drones soaring through the air capturing photos and video footage and instantly live streaming the content to the masses was pretty much incomprehensible. That is the type of stuff those fancy TV news helicopters were meant to do.

The North Tower of the World Trade Center after being struck by American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11, 2001.

The Attack.

At 8:46 a.m. Eastern time, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower between floors 93 and 99, killing hundred instantly and trapping others in elevators, and rooms with jammed doors due to the structural shift from the impact. The Port Authority promptly issued an evacuation order for the North Tower which resulted in saving many lives. United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. Eastern time 17 minutes later between floors 77 and 85, trapping an estimated 600 people above the impact zone. The South Tower remained standing for 56 minutes before collapsing at 9:59 a.m.

At 10:28 a.m. the North Tower of the WTC collapsed.

The World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 claimed the lives of 2,606 people (not including those aboard the two aircraft). An array of factors lead to the massive civilian casualty number at WTC on 9/11, too many to discuss in this forum. While the majority of the deaths were civilians, 343 of those killed were firefighters, and 71 were law enforcement officers. The total number of first responders killed at the WTC site was 414, representing 16% of the total deaths at the Twin Towers.

Technology has advanced considerably. But could drones have really made some of impact on 9/11? The Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) certainly appears to think so.The New York Times reported on September 8 of FDNY's plan to start testing drones to garner increased situational awareness about incidents that require two alarms or more (firefighter code for how many assets are being diverted to work a specific incident). The plan is for the UAV's to send real time imagery back to firefighter commanders on the ground so they can properly assess the risks and decide how to formulate the response. The first rescue teams arrived at the WTC site within minutes of the initial strike and started climbing to stairs to the impact zone. Had UAV technology been available, a prudent move would have been to simultaneously send a drone directly up the North Tower to assess the scene. A live video stream of the actual impact zone, and the bedlam transpiring on nearby floors from those who were trapped, would have told a compelling story of the situation. One that was much more difficult to decipher from the ground.

The South Tower of the World Trade Center after being struck by United Airlines Flight 175 on September 11, 2001.

Even more valuable could have been intelligence gathered about which part of the structure was still intact and operational. Responders could have then cross referenced real-time data with building maps and blueprints to direct survivors to descend via a specific route.

At 9:03 a.m. the mission of the UAS' would have shifted somewhat with the understanding that this incident was a coordinated terror attack upon the WTC. Multiple drones would have been valuable at this stage to not only provide situational awareness about the towers and their impact zones, but also to help coordinate the evacuation and response at ground level.

When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., it can be presumed that some of the UAV assets would have been lost due to debris. However, those drones that remained in the air would have been likely been immediately directed to assess the structural integrity of the North Tower, with the presumption that this tower may also collapse in due time.

The knowledge that may have been gained from drone assessments on 9/11 might have saved the lives of a portion of the first responders. There is no way to ever be certain. UAV technology would have likely given fire commanders improved situational awareness about the threat they were facing on 9/11. Perhaps they then would have staged their response a few blocks away rather than at the very foot of the Twin Towers themselves. As the situation worsened, perhaps UAV's could have provided enough data to allow more time for a withdrawal. Again, there is no way to really know.

One thing is for sure; firefighters are by there very nature a daring breed. It would have been almost futile to try to tell a FDNY firefighter to retreat to safety on 9/11 when he knows there are hundreds -- if not thousands -- of people trapped in a building right above him who need immediate help. All in all, current drone technology would have been of marginal assistance to first responders on 9/11. Some additional lives may have been saved, we can't be certain.

The Fire Department of the City of New York is starting to test UAV technology to assist with situational awareness at major incidents. Photo by The New York Times

The real promise for unmanned aviation in providing an airborne response to disasters like 9/11 resides in the future evolution and refinement of the technology. Until that day arrives, incremental advancements in drone and UAV technology will continue to push the envelope toward the promised land of search and rescue. The day will come when a swarm of fire fighting drones will ascend to a catastrophe like 9/11 and immediately start applying fire suppression foam and chemicals into the fire. This will suppress the flames and heat, giving trapped survivors more oxygen and a better chance and waiting for rescue. Another series of drones will then arrive to start on-loading survivors and transport them to safety. I know, it all sounds too simple. Eventually it will be.

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