Whether it’s flying over a wall like Iron Man in the latest Avenger’s movie or swinging from building to building with ease like Spiderman through Manhattan’s skyline, military forces have long looked for ways to emulate these superheroes.
A group of Utah State University mechanical and aerospace engineering students pulled out their best superhero tricks, using engineering principals, some basic math and a lot of ingenuity, to design a system for special operations force personnel to scale buildings or mountain faces under a variety of conditions. The students’ efforts were part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Design Challenge. The design was a success that garnered the group first place in the national competition.
Using three components — a vacuum ascender, an adhesive anchor and a rope ascender — the Utah State University team took its design to the National Center for Medical Readiness training facility to compete against 16 universities that included Arizona State, Johns Hopkins and Brigham Young University for the top honor.
In August 2011 teams were given the warfighter-focused engineering design challenge, $20,000 for materials and fabrication and nine months to come up with a demonstrable solution. Teams were judged on both objective measures (weight, size, velocity achieved) and subjective measures (ease of operation, usability, stealth, innovation and elegance).
The USU team ended up with a design that allows a person to put their hands and feet into a spider-like vacuum contraption allowing them to climb a wall. After reaching the top of the wall, the climber then places adhesive anchors on the top of the structure before sending down a rope strong enough to hold 300 pounds with which the other team members are able to ascend the wall.
“We went into this competition not knowing what the requirements were going to be,” said TJ Morton, mechanical and aerospace engineering student and team captain. “The competition allowed us to use everything we had learned about in our engineering courses and apply it to a genuine design problem.”
During the course of the school year, the team went through several trial and error ideas before coming up with the one that worked.
“I really liked this challenge because it was hard,” said mechanical aerospace engineering professor and team mentor Steve Hansen. “Coming up with a viable and practical solution really challenged the students.”
The Utah State University team was the only team to get all four required military personnel to the top of a 90-foot wall.
“The logistics of this project became real very quick,” said team member Dan Aguirre . “Someone was actually relying on our design to climb a wall. You can’t get that in a textbook.”
This fall, the team will try to secure a $100,000 grant to further develop its innovative idea for the Air Force. They’ve already been featured in several national media outlets, including NBC, MSNBC and in Popular Mechanics.
— Maren Cartwright �00
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A student in USU's ROTC program helps to demonstrate the engineering students' winning design.
Donna Barry, University Photographer