MIT Student Invents Hand-Held, Wall-Climbing Winch

An M.I.T. graduate student has invented a hand-held gadget that lets you climb up and down walls like Batman.

Called the Powered Rope Ascender, it's a spiraling, battery-powered winch that winds its way up a rope at up to 10 feet per second.

"We've already gotten an order from the military," inventor Nathan Ball told, though he wouldn't specify how many the Army asked for in the $120,000 requisition.

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Most winches need to be bolted to the top of a building, and then lower cables or ropes to the ground to which an object or person is fixed. The winch then turns horizontally, retracting the cable and whatever's attached to it.

Ball's device reverses that scenario. It works from the bottom up, or top down, attaching itself to the person or object being lifted. It then climbs the rope or cable, drawing it through a spiral ratchet as it moves along it like a bead on a string.

• Click here to see a video of the Powered Rope Ascender in action.

The battery-powered gadget is envisioned as a tool for firefighters and soldiers, and helped earn Ball $30,000 as part of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, announced Wednesday.

"There are some very compelling homeland defense applications," said Lisa Shaler-Clark, an Army Research Office technology transfer specialist. "It's about as fast as an elevator, so it's faster than using a traditional winch."

While he has practical applications in mind, Ball says it isn't a stretch to compare the tool to the gadgets fictional heroes use to quickly climb to dizzying heights.

"It's neat to be able to create a real-life engineering solution that has the actual functionality described in the fantastic situations you see on Batman, and with James Bond," said Ball.

"It could also be used to go down into caves, or from one ship to another," Ball explained to FOX. "The beauty of it is that it's totally portable. A construction crew could bring it to a work site and be lifting heavy items up a building within minutes."

Ball expects the device to eventually sell for a little less than $10,000.

If the device becomes widespread, buildings could be equipped with ropes to allow firefighters to ascend rapidly and then lower rescuees to the ground.

A rescuer would engage the rope into the device, and then pull a trigger to control the rate of ascent or descent.

Only minimal training would be required to use it, Ball said.

The invention grew out of an MIT-sponsored, Army-funded student design competition in 2004 to develop technology to help soldiers ascend rapidly.

Ball collaborated with three fellow MIT students to refine the design from the competition and create the Powered Rope Ascender, a product of the startup company they founded, Atlas Devices.

The device wraps rope in much the same way that a ship raises or lowers its anchor, using a capstan and tightly wound rope.

Specially configured rollers and a spindle continuously pull rope through the device. A tighter grip is produced each time the rope is wrapped around a cylinder and more weight is applied to the line.

"The challenge is making a mechanism that can continuously pull the rope up reliably with an easy way to clip it in, and without having it chew up the rope," said Ball, a mechanical engineering student from Newport, Ore.

The only flaw is that someone has to get up top first by more conventional means to attach the rope, which could be hazardous during urban combat. But once the rope is attached, more people can ascend very rapidly.

Ball conceded that, like in the movies, someone could fire a massive dart that would fix itself into a tall structure.

"You'd have to be pretty trusting that the rope was well attached without being able to look at it up close," he laughed.'s Paul Wagenseil and the Associated Press contributed to this report.