21 incredible innovations that improved the world in 2016

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Image: Saltwater Brewery; Nifty Cup; WYSS INSTITUTE AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY VIA MIT; LEKA; Bakeys; SafariSeat

2016 may have been a terrible year in many ways, but there was still some undeniable good to come out of the past 12 months.

For proof, look no further than the year’s most impactful innovations, offering solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

From a futuristic bus that glides over traffic to a $1 cup saving countless babies’ lives, inventors developed ingenious gadgets and ideas that tackle inequality and improve the world for millions of people.

In no particular order – and certainly not an exhaustive list – these 21 social good innovations had a massive impact this year.

For more world-changing innovations, check out our list from 2015.

1. An edible drone delivering humanitarian aid

The only thing cooler than a drone is an edible drone – especially one that saves lives.

An inexpensive drone prototype, called Pouncer, was designed to help deliver humanitarian aid to remote regions with impassible roads. The drone doesn’t just carry essential items for relief, but also features a plywood frame for firewood, wings packed with food and protective covers that can double as shelter.

Windhorse Aerospace, the company behind Pouncer, designed the drone in an effort to revolutionize aid in the aftermath of natural disasters. The team hopes the prototype will become a reality in 2017.

2. A wheelchair made for people in developing countries

For people with mobility-related disabilities, wheelchairs can be essential. But for people in developing regions, traditional wheelchairs are often unusable on the rough, rural terrain.

SafariSeat, an all-terrain wheelchair, is a low-cost solution to this often overlooked problem. The durable wheelchair is propelled forward by hand levers and features sturdy wheels. It’s also made entirely of repurposed bicycle parts, designed to be manufactured and maintained in impoverished regions.

SafariSeat began crowdfunding on Kickstarter in November, and plans to start production in Kenya in 2017.

3. Edible food packaging made with milk

Forget plastic packaging, and say hello to milk protein film.

To help curb the globe’s reliance on plastic for storing and preserving food, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers announced the creation of a new biodegradable film in August, which is made of the milk protein casein.

The edible film is estimated to be 500 times better than plastic packaging at keeping food fresh, keeping oxygen away from food more effectively.

4. A bot that helps low-income families fight eviction

When expensive lawyers won’t fit your budget, getting legal aid can seem impossible. But that’s where robots come in.

Stanford undergrad Joshua Browder released a bot called DoNotPay in August, which helps those unable to afford legal aid fight evictions.

To use DoNotPay, a person facing eviction has a simple instant message-like conversation with the bot, which acts as a virtual lawyer. Based on the conversation, the bot decides how to best serve the user, usually crafting a claims letter based on the information provided.

Through this computerized consulting process, the DoNotPay bot can potentially help low-income users save hundreds of dollars in legal fees.

5. A prosthetic that can be custom-molded in two hours

Molding a custom prosthetic usually takes several weeks, numerous appointments and lots of money. For low-income amputees worldwide, access to these prosthetics is simply impossible. In fact, 80% of amputees worldwide go without modern prosthetics.

German startup AMPARO created an alternative, drastically simplifying the process of custom-fitting a prosthetic to an artificial limb. The innovation, dubbed the Dignity Socket, is re-moldable, with the ability to adjust to big or small changes in limb size for more comfort. It can also be custom-molded to a wearer in as few as two hours.

The prosthetic was one of three winners at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Innovation Showcase in June.

6. A massive device that cleans coastlines

An ocean-cleaning innovation finally became a reality in 2016 after five years of research, prototypes and creativity.

Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat first proposed an ocean cleanup machine at only 17 years old. But a prototype of the buoyant boom-like device – called Boomy McBoomface – was finally put into action in June, thanks to more than $10 million in funding.

Slat’s device floats along a coast and creates an artificial coastline, catching debris on the surface of the ocean. A connected conveyer then lifts the garbage into a central tower, where it is sorted for disposal.

7. The high-tech toy helping autistic children socialize

Leka is way more than a cute-as-can-be smart toy. The interactive and multi-sensory device is more like a buddy specially designed for autistic children, encouraging them to develop autonomy through independent play.

The round toy plays sounds and music, speaks, lights up, and vibrates to engage children in multi-sensory activities. Leka is also customizable, which means it can be tailored to fit a child’s needs and comfort.

The toy completed a successful Indiegogo campaign over the summer, raising more than 152% of its goal.

8. A reversible tent that provides shelter to homeless populations

For many homeless people, one of the biggest challenges of living without stable shelter is confronting extreme weather.

WeatherHYDE is a reversible tent that protects homeless populations and families in developing nations against all types of weather. One side of the tent features reflective panels, which cools the interior down in extreme heat. The other side protects against severe cold by insulating the tent, trapping in body heat to warm up the interior.

A Kickstarter campaign to fund production and distribution of 500 tents to families in need ran throughout November, receiving more than $145,000 worth of funding.

9. A device that helps the Deaf community detect danger

If an alarm is meant to indicate danger, what happens when you can’t hear the warning? It could be dangerous – or even deadly.

Furenexo, a startup based in New York, launched a Kickstarter campaign in July to build SoundSense, a small wearable that is designed to help deaf individuals detect loud sounds and alerts. The device is triggered by warning sounds, like sirens and car horns, transforming the audio alerts into felt vibrations.

The device will only cost $30 – significantly lower than similar devices.

10. The biodegradable six-pack rings that feed sea life

Sick of seeing sad sea creatures stuck in plastic six-pack rings? You – and your aquatic friends – are in luck.

Florida-based Saltwater Brewery invented a biodegradable and compostable version of the classic plastic rings that makes use of their natural brewing byproducts, like wheat and barley. The best part: The rings are also edible, meaning sea life can munch on them without fear.

The six-pack rings went viral in May, when the prototype was first announced.

11. The $1 feeding cup that is saving infants’ lives

If an infant in a developing nation can’t nurse, they’re at an increased risk of malnutrition, or even death. But a new innovation costing mere pocket change has the potential to change that.

The NIFTY cup, a simple innovation that costs only $1, grants infants who can’t latch with the ability to feed. The cup features a spout that collects milk from the larger container designed to fit an infant’s mouth.

The cup was designed through a collaboration between global health organization PATH, the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital. It was announced at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen in early May.

12. The machine designed to destroy your iPhone – for social good

In March, Apple announced the creation of Liam, a 29-arm robot with destructive tendencies. Specifically, Liam was designed to tear apart your iPhone into recyclable and reusable parts with impressive precision.

Liam can disassemble an iPhone in just 11 seconds, sorting basic parts into pieces that can be sold, recycled or reused. One Liam device can disassemble about 1.2 million iPhones over the course of a year.

Mass distribution of the machines to Apple locations are in the works as part of the company’s environmental responsibility commitment.

13. The edible utensils that can replace plastic cutlery

Thanks to Indian company Bakeys, you can now have your spoon – and eat it, too.

The company created edible spoons made of rice, wheat or sorghum to help curb plastic waste. The cutlery, which has a shelf life of two years, comes in flavored varieties such as ginger-garlic and cumin. The spoons can even hold hot liquids, like soup, without dissolving.

The company launched a Kickstarter campaign in early 2016 to raise money for distribution in communities throughout India, raising nearly $150,000.

14. Sidewalk traffic lights for those glued to their phones

Let’s face it: You simply can’t be trusted to peel your eyes away from your phone – even when crossing the street.

That’s why German public transportation provider Stadtwerke Augsburg embedded traffic lights in some city crosswalks around the country in April. The company hopes the new lights will help tech-focused pedestrians to cross streets safety – even if they refuse to look up.

15. The futuristic elevated bus hoping to curb pollution

In May, China’s top engineers unveiled a prototype of a massive bus that hovers over cars on the road. The innovation – which was created to maximize road space, cut down on traffic jams and decrease pollution – quickly went viral for its show-stopping design.

The electric-powered Transit Elevated Bus operates on rails, giving it the ability to drive over cars on standard roads. Each vehicle can hold a staggering 1,200 passengers, and the impressive system is cheaper and faster to build than existing public transport options.

However, with some design and safety barriers still in the way, the innovation still has a long way to go before hitting city streets.

16. The simple Zika test that is revolutionizing diagnoses

The Zika epidemic, which spanned 2015 to 2016, had the world on edge and researchers frantically working toward solutions. One innovation to come out of the outbreak was a low-cost Zika test created by MIT researchers.

While traditional tests may take days, MIT researchers announced the new creation that takes only three hours. The paper-based test features a series of purple dots that turn yellow when exposed to blood samples containing the virus. And it only costs $1.

17. The robotic utensils helping people with disabilities eat independently

New robotic utensils are helping people with limited mobility regain mealtime independence.

The line, called Liftware, features two utensils individually designed to help with hand tremors, limited reach and other mobility conditions. And it’s all through high-tech sensors, computers and motors that fit into a tiny spoon.

The utensils can be used with spoon or fork attachments, and were designed specifically for those living with cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and post-stroke mobility issues.

The utensils are currently available for $195.

18. The system helping refugees pay for food with a blink of an eye

The United Nations World Food Programme, which addresses food needs of refugee populations, launched a new system in February that uses iris scans to distribute food assistance to Syrian refugees.

The system simply requires scanning the eyes of refugees at checkout while shopping for groceries. Used in several refugee camps in Jordan, the scanning system provides greater safety and security than standard electronic payment cards, which can easily be lost, stolen or misused.

19. The Facebook tool helping users connect during disasters

In the aftermath of a disaster, finding food, water and shelter can be incredibly difficult, especially for low-income communities.

A Facebook tool called Community Help, which was announced at the Facebook Social Good Forum in November, hopes to close these gaps by connecting those in need to essentials like food, water, transportation and shelter. The new feature will pop up after a user checks in as “safe” through Safety Check, allowing users in the area to connect with others who are offering or looking for help after a disaster.

The feature will officially roll out to Facebook users in January 2017.

20. A sturdy condom that refuses to rip

LELO HEX condoms are upping the safer sex game by providing stronger, more durable condoms with less risk of tears.

The condom – which has been seven years in the making – uses a hexagonal pattern to mold to the wearer, withstanding more stress and friction than traditional condoms. The inventors hope it will provide wearers with a more secure, more pleasurable option for contraception.

The condom became available for purchase over the summer through an Indiegogo campaign.

21. An ingenious no-electricity cooler made with plastic bottles

Do you have a few plastic bottles lying around? Then you can make an air conditioner – really.

Eco-Cooler is a low-cost cooling system designed for developing regions. It’s constructed from halved plastic bottles inserted into a grid-like board, which is then installed in a hut like a window pane.

Each bottle’s neck collects and compresses air from hot breezes, cooling it down dramatically. The innovation can drop temperatures inside a hut as much as 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Several rural communities in Bangladesh have already implemented the system, which is an eco-friendly solution for communities lacking electrical access.