The second suspect in the brutal Boston Marathon bombings has been apprehended, after five days of uncertainty and fear. And while all credit for Dzhokar Tsarnaev's capture goes to the men and women of the many, many agencies that spent the last week tracking him down, technology played as prominent a role as it ever has in a time of national crisis.
Immediately after the Boston Marathon bomb exploded, David Green pulled out his smartphone and snapped a shot of the aftermath, smoke and all-around chaos. He then put his phone away and started helping victims. Taking a picture of what you see in front of you—whether it be a disaster, a beautiful view, a plate of food—has become as instinctual as just plain seeing.
What Green didn't know, and what the world was soon going to find out, was that Green's picture eventually became the clearest image of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, aka Suspect #2. In the high-resolution image, you can see Tsarnaev calmly walk away from the explosion in his unmistakable white baseball cap. On top of that, the smartphone pic captured Tsarnaev without the backpack he was spotted carrying earlier on surveillance cameras. The backpack that reportedly held the bomb.
To start the manhunt on the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, the FBI gathered as many photos and videos of the crime scene as they could find to piece together how it happened, and to get a lead on who did it. Unsurprisingly, the best piece of intel on the bombing suspects came from the all-seeing eye of a surveillance camera. Specifically, department store Lord & Taylor's dome surveillance camera which was directly across the street from the second explosion.
That camera captured Tsarnaev dropping his backpack down at the spot of the second explosion and walking away. Those images allowed the FBI to publish photos of the two bombing suspects, which helped in identifying who they were. As much as we complain about Big Brother, it sometimes has its benefits: it's hard to hide in videotape.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the local bomb squad was joined by a Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Units to seek out any other potential explosive packages. As rumours and misinformation swirled through Twitter, Reddit, and other social media channels, it became crucial to determine quickly what was a threat, and what was just a misplaced bag. This bot, or one like it, helped make that call.
The Telerob Explosive Ordinance Disposal has been in use since 2000, and has been deployed in over 40 countries to help deal with IEDs and other explosive threats. It features a six-axis manipulator with over nine feet of reach, a pair of cameras, and enough defusing tools to neutralise nearly any threat.
After the Watertown curfew was lifted, a still-unidentified resident stepped out of his house to enjoy a smoke. It was then that he saw that his boat was smeared with blood, and that a blood-soaked man was hiding under its tarp. To confirm that this was in fact where Tsarnaev was hiding, police called in a helicopter equipped with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera.
FLIR cameras are equipped with special sensors that can detect infrared radiation, such as that caused by a heat source. Specifically, in this case, caused by a heat source belonging to a human body. Think of it as the Boston PD's own Predator-vision, mounted to a chopper flying overhead, well out of harm's way. FLIR cameras have the added benefit of being able to see through smoke, fog, and other barriers. Including tarps.
When police converged around the boat in which Tsarnaev was hiding, it was unclear whether—or to what degree—he was armed. To disorient him before moving in for a possible confrontation or arrest, they deployed flashbangs, grenades designed to stun their intended target with a loud noise and bright light.
Flashbangs have been used in military operations since the 1960s, although they're probably better known as a popular weapon in several video games. While they don't cause serious injury, they do blind their target for up to five seconds, and cause temporary loss of both hearing and balance. There were reports of a small fire on the boat after the flashbangs were deployed; that's not entirely surprising, given that the amount of heat they generate can ignite flammables -- if you remember the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980, that ended in flames because of flashbangs.