The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory wants to find a better way for airmen to scale tall structures or rock faces, so it did what just about anyone seeking new ideas does these days – it held a contest. Its 2012 Service Academy and University Engineering Challenge saw teams from 17 universities and three service academies showing off their wall-scaling systems, earlier this month at Wright State University’s Calamityville tactical laboratory in Fairborn, Ohio. One of the teams, from Utah’s Brigham Young University, devised an impressive system that was inspired directly by Batman’s grappling hook-shooting, power winch-equipped gun.

The contest required that all competing devices must allow users to climb higher, faster and with less effort than current techniques allow. The devices also had to be reusable, permit multiple pitches within one climb, allow the operator to keep one hand free for using other equipment, and be capable of getting three people each carrying 300-pound (136 kg) loads up a 90-foot (27.5-meter) vertical incline within 20 minutes. Additionally, just to make things even more interesting, it was preferred that the devices not rely on having to grapple over the top edge of a structure – in other words, they needed to somehow stick to its face.

The Brigham Young system was designed and created by a group of engineering students, as their final undergraduate project.

It uses a compressed air cannon to shoot a grappling hook to the top of a structure, trailing a climbing rope behind it. Users then attach a motorized winch to that rope – that winch is also attached to the user’s climbing harness. With the press of a button, the winch proceeds to pull them up the rope at a rate of over 30 feet (9 meters) a minute. That is reportedly faster than what Special Forces operatives can manage, given that they’re usually climbing using only one hand.

For applications where a grappling hook can’t be used, the system also includes a head equipped with an epoxy-coated patch. That special epoxy allows it to temporarily stick to the wall, while an attached array of ultraviolet LED lights causes the epoxy to cure, providing a stronger, more permanent attachment. The epoxy can cure in five minutes, as opposed to the 12 hours or longer required by regular epoxies.

The Challenge just wrapped up last Friday, and a Brigham Young representative tells us that the students are still waiting to hear how they placed. We’ll add an update once we’ve heard back. In the meantime, the device can be seen in use in the video below.

UPDATE (May 1, 2012): Wright-Patterson Air Force Base informs us that Utah State University's team took the top prize, for their vacuum suction pad-enabled system.

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