Nathan Ball, a graduate student at MIT, has invented a motorized pulley that will let paramedics and firefighters zip up the side of buildings 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 can take six to eight minutes.
Ball is this year's recipient of the Lemelson-MIT award, a $30,000 prize for invention annually awarded to a student at the school. The Atlas works as follows. A rope is fixed to the roof 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 produces a tighter grip each consecutive time a rope is wrapped around a cylinder in the Atlas. As the grip tightens, more weight can be applied to the line.
The battery inside the Atlas comes from A123 Systems, a notable lithium ion battery start-up that's working with General Motors and General Electric.