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Batman's climbing device comes to life

Self-contained anchor and winch pulls four people up 90 feet

In the 1989 version of Batman, Joker, played at the time by Jack Nicholson, marveled at the Caped Crusader’s duty gear: “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”

Batman’s equipment is pretty impressive—a cape that expands into a glider wing, fold-up batarangs, and some very, very cool vehicles. But one device we all could have used at one time or another was a handheld gadget that first shot a grappling hook-equipped cable vertically, wrapped around some sturdy object, then retracted the cable into the handle, pulling Batman up with it.

I’ll take two.

Real-World Research
It won’t fit on your duty belt, but gear that performs essentially the same job may be available in the not-distant future. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory recently hosted the 2012 Service Academy and University Engineering Challenge competition at Wright State University’s Calamityville tactical lab in Fairborn (Ohio) where 17 university engineering schools and three service academies demonstrated their home-grown solutions for a self-climbing device that would do the same work as Batman’s wonderful toy. The rules specified that any device developed for the contest had to allow the user to ascend higher, faster and with less effort than any current technique or device in use.

Other requirements included that the device be reusable, traverse multiple pitches in a single climb, require the operator to use only one hand, and be able to raise four people, each carrying a 300-lb. load, 90 feet vertically, all within 20 minutes. Even Batman’s hook can’t do that. There was a stated preference that the anchor end of the device not have to hook over the upper edge of a structure. The USAF preferred that the anchor stick to the face of the object to be climbed. This was a tall order, no matter how you stack it.

A Very Sticky Idea
One of the more innovative inventions came from Brigham Young University’s student engineers. The anchor uses a surface coated with a special formulation of epoxy glue. The epoxy sticks the anchor to the wall or overhang, and then an array of UV light-emitting diodes in the anchor quick-cures the epoxy, making the attachment permanent. Most epoxies take around 12 hours to form a bond strong enough for this kind of work.

The BYU device cures the epoxy in five minutes, tops. The engineering students who invested the device also demonstrated it, so I assume they had confidence in their work. Had that anchor failed, it wouldn’t have been pretty. The engineering students made several attachment heads, suitable for surfaces of varying composition.

The climbing rope attached to the anchor gets into place by the use of a compressed air cannon. When the epoxy has set, the operator attaches a motorized winch to the rope that pulls the load up at a rate of 30-feet-per minute. This might not seem all that fast, but it beats most commando or SWAT types climbing with only one hand and carrying a big load of gear. The battery powering the winch has enough juice to repeat the climb at least three times before needing a recharge.

Innovative as that was, it didn’t win. Honors went to Utah State University in Logan (Utah apparently breeds some fine engineers). Their device used a suction-cup anchor to attach the climbing line to the overhead. I expect you will see devices like this for sale at police trade shows within five years, as the universities license the technology to manufacturers.

Channeling Batman to help the Air Force

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