MIT student invents device for wall crawling

Nathan Ball led design of the Atlas Powered Rope Ascender, which can hoist 250 pounds up 30 stories in half a minute.Photos: The Atlas at work
Written by Michael Kanellos, Contributor
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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