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 that heavy can take six to eight minutes.
The Atlas works as follows: A rope is fixed to the roof of a building 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 lets the rope grip tighter each time it wraps around a cylinder. As the grip tightens, more weight can be applied to the line. The key is that the Atlas also has a system that prevents the rope from overlapping or winding up on itself on the internal cylinder, thereby ensuring continuous movement, said Ball.
The battery inside the Atlas comes from A123 Systems, a notable lithium-ion battery start-up that is working with General Motors and General Electric.
The Atlas grew out of the 2004 Soldier Design Competition at MIT. Contestants were asked to create a device that could hoist 250 pounds of weight 50 feet into the air in five seconds. The contest rules also specified that the device had to weigh less than 25 pounds, which meant it would have to pack five horsepower of power.