February 14, 2007 12:35 PM PST

MIT student invents device for wall crawling

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Inventor of swarming robots wins prize

February 26, 2003
Nathan Ball, a mechanical-engineering graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led a team that has invented a motorized pulley that will let paramedics and firefighters zip up the side of buildings sort of like Spider-Man.

Ball's Atlas Powered Rope Ascender can pull a firefighter loaded down with 80 to 100 pounds of equipment up a 30-story building in 30 seconds. Trudging up the stairs weighed down with equipment that heavy can take six to eight minutes.

Atlas Powered Rope Ascender

"It is literally like what Batman or James Bond has," said Ball in an interview. "It is a cordless power tool that you hook onto your safety harness. It has variable speed control just like a drill."

Ball is this year's recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, a $30,000 award for invention awarded to a student at the school every year. Past winners include Carl Dietrich, who designed a flying car that may ultimately be produced by his company Terrafugia, and James McLurkin, a robot expert who has since worked with iRobot, developer of the Roomba vacuum cleaner and the PackBot Tactical Mobile Robot, which is designed to disarm explosives. (The foundation has also started similar programs at the University of Illinois and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.)

The Atlas works as follows: A rope is fixed to the roof of a building or other surface where a firefighter or paramedic wants to go. (The Atlas thus is designed for the second and third waves of help.) Down below, the rope is woven through a series of specially configured rollers on top of a turning spindle on the Atlas. As the battery-powered spindle rotates, it pulls the rope through the device and hoists the person.

Like a boat anchor, the Atlas exploits the capstan effect, which lets the rope grip tighter each time it wraps around a cylinder. As the grip tightens, more weight can be applied to the line. The key is that the Atlas also has a system that prevents the rope from overlapping or winding up on itself on the internal cylinder, thereby ensuring continuous movement, said Ball.

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Video: Student has them climbing the walls
MIT grad student has won a prize for his invention, a device can take you up a 30-story building in 30 seconds.

The battery inside the Atlas comes from A123 Systems, a notable lithium-ion battery start-up that is working with General Motors and General Electric.

The Atlas grew out of the 2004 Soldier Design Competition at MIT. Contestants were asked to create a device that could hoist 250 pounds of weight 50 feet into the air in five seconds. The contest rules also specified that the device had to weigh less than 25 pounds, which meant it would have to pack five horsepower of power.

Ball and three colleagues harvested parts from power drills and other sources to come up with a system that could hoist 250 pounds the required distance, but it took seven seconds. Further tinkering led to the Atlas. (All four students worked on the Atlas, but Ball is the lead inventor.)

The Altas, about the size of a handheld power tool, can lift a 250-pound load more than 600 feet into the air at nearly 10 feet per second on one battery charge.

The inventors have also formed Atlas Devices to commercialize it. The company will ship its first round of devices to the U.S. Army this spring. Over time, the company will sell them to rescue teams and get the price closer to $1,000. Eventually, Atlas-like devices could be installed for entertainment purposes, Ball said.

The 23-year-old Ball has also invented a needle-free method for injecting medicines. It will undergo bovine tests soon. Australian biotechnology company Norwood Abbey is funding tests for the method, which is based on a laser-assisted delivery device, and will help commercialize it.

He is also the technical advisor and co-host on Design Squad, an upcoming PBS Kids show on invention.

And what were you doing your first year after getting your undergrad degree?

The Lemelson-MIT foundation was created through the estate of Jerome Lemelson, a somewhat polarizing figure during his life. Lemelson obtained more than 500 patents that ended up the basis of lawsuits against companies such as General Motors and Otis Elevator. Settlements and verdicts in the more than 135 so-called Lemelson lawsuits totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. The suits led to several reforms in U.S. patent procedure.

Several inventors, particularly independent ones, have held him up as a prolific inventor who filed lawsuits to prevent big companies from exploiting his ideas for free. The foundation also gives out substantial grants that often fund further research.

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not quite...
like Batman gadget. Remember Batman doesn't need a person to get on the roof first to establish a line before he can zip up the buildings.
Posted by dondarko (261 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Afix it to the ladder
Anchor it on a firetruck ladder, and you should be able to use it in first response situations too.
Posted by H Voyager (38 comments )
Link Flag
I don't think this thing has comfort in mind
If this thing has a harness like Ball is wearing in the picture, it would be rather painfull once someone is attached especially with 100 pounds of extra weight. Not it mention that it doesn't look like he considered the shift in the center of gravity when firefighters has an oxygen tank on their back.

I really question whether Ball's team tested it with the conditions stated above. I also doubt real world applications given the battery limitations that it has right now.
Posted by aka_tripleB (2211 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You're not a climber, are you?
Rock climbers and alpine climbers have been using harnesses like this for decades. You can take a 5 metre fall while wearing a pack in this harness without any real problems.
Posted by fcekuahd (244 comments )
Link Flag
I don't get it. Why burden the rescuer with the extra weight of a motor. Since this method presumes that someone is setting up an anchor at the top, why not just have them set up a pulley. Attach one end of the rope to the rescuer's harness and the other to a wynch on the rescue vehicle and zip them right up to the top. I don't know, maybe this invention would be more practical in a mountain rescue scenario.
Posted by ronpadz (62 comments )
Reply Link Flag
That would double the length of rope required
Posted by fcekuahd (244 comments )
Link Flag
Nice work ! I'd like to see more specs on the capstan and what the running time is on the battery. PMI Rope has had something like this out there for about 5 years, so the technology has already hit the market. I like this guy's thought process though and hope he runs like hell with the $ and makes some more innovative contributions to the rope rescue world. My suggestion would be to encase/waterproof some LiPO batteries.

Marc Beverly
Certified Guide
Strike Rescue, CEO
Posted by marcbeverly (1 comment )
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