Ascending Aggies: USU engineering students win national competition

Engineering students at Utah State University won a national competition with their invention, the Personnel Assisted Vacuum Climber (above), that is designed to scale a 37-foot wall in under a minute. Photos credit: Steve Hansen

By Lis Stewart

Aggie Blue Print

They jokingly call themselves the Ghostbusters, but this group of Utah State University engineering students is not tracking down unruly spirits and teaching them a lesson. Instead, they’ve shot to fame with a senior project that won a national competition and earned the recognition of the Air Force Research Laboratory director.

The winning project, officially known as the Personnel Assisted Vacuum Climber and dubbed the “Spider-Man Suit” by the media, is a vacuum-powered suit with suction pads and stirrups used to climb a 37-foot wall in 40 seconds — with a little training, of course.

It sounds like something right out of a spy movie. Assuming the role of the character Q in the James Bond films, 15 Aggie engineering students responded to this year’s task of the Air Force Research Laboratory: Use $20,000 to find a way to make four people scale a 90-foot wall without using a grappling hook in twenty minutes.

Team member Keith Bates thought it would be easy at first. Society is used to watching movies like Batman and Mission Impossible where a rope shoots out of your belt, attaches itself to a ledge and reels you up. Bates remembers when he came to the realization that it would not be quite as easy as he thought. “It doesn’t exist in real life,” he said, laughing. “It took me about a week to figure that out, and then I was like ‘Oh, crap.’”

The group was first split into two teams during fall semester of 2011 and told to come up with one design each. In the end, Engineering Professor Steve Hansen said concepts from both designs were integrated into what would become a system designed to have a Special Forces member climb the 90-foot wall with a vacuum strapped to his or her back, using special made suction pads to allow them to stick to virtually any surface. Upon reaching the top, the climber then puts down anchors based on Kevlar and nylon, impregnated with super glue and attached to winch ascenders that reel in the other three people.

The USU team of engineering students that built a national-winning invention.

However, getting people to believe in the vacuum design took effort. “We had a professor who told us it wouldn’t work,” Bates explained. The team got parts from Wal-Mart and built a vacuum.  Bates proved it was strong enough by hanging off the wall.

Although the Special Forces member using the Aggies’ design did not make it all the way to the top of the wall during the competition, USU’s vacuum suit was the clear winner, Hansen said. The University of Minnesota took second place for their robot design that scaled the wall up to 87 feet using a vacuum, and Brigham Young University—the only other Utah institute of higher education to participate in this competition—took third for their grappling hook design. Most teams did not make it to the top.

Failing to make it to the top of the wall was not an option for us, Hansen explained. “My view of it was… you have to do it until 90 feet.”

The team also had an advantage over other teams. In the middle of the spring semester, they were shown pictures of the silo where the competition would take place. The Air Force threw a wrench in the wheel, however, with a one-and-a-half foot ledge at the top. It wasn’t a strictly vertical climb anymore; the design would now have to ensure they could make it over a ledge.

Luckily for the Ascending Aggies, they had already planned for that from the beginning.

“We said not only will we get them to 90 feet, we’ll get them on top of the building,” Hansen said. The silo in Smithfield—where the team tested their vacuum ascender—has a three-foot ledge, which they were never able to quite get over. The competition was the first time the vacuum ascender made it over a ledge, but the fact that they had prepared for it made a difference.

They vacuum’s strength was also tested beforehand by hanging off walls around USU campus. “We’d walk around campus and get some pretty good looks and people would yell, ‘Ghostbusters!’ at us,” Bates said. As a joke he would play the Ghostbusters theme song on his phone while they were walking around looking for places to test the vacuum climber.

Most of the team members had the opportunity to use the climbing gear, and they soon developed a system. Team member Garrett Vaughan holds the current record for climbing a wall fastest, scaling 37 feet in 40 seconds. Members of the team agree that Garrett is the “resident world champion” of climbing with the vacuum ascender. The Friday before the competition in Ohio, the Air Force ROTC at USU tried out the team’s invention. Vaughan raced another member (as two vacuum ascenders were built) up the wall and just barely beat him to the top.

Watching the Special Forces members climb up the silo in Ohio was a lot slower though, team member Valerio Callisaya said. There’s a technique to climbing with suction pads that takes a bit of practice. “It would probably have been better if we had sent them a video of how it works (beforehand),” Callisaya explained. After about ten minutes of instruction, the Aggies decided to just get their testers on the wall.

A Special Forces Member tests out the student-designed Personnel Assisted Vacuum Climber, an national-winning invention developed by USU engineering students.

Nail-biting minutes ensued. “To put it in perspective, Garrett can climb about 60 feet a minute,” Bates said. “That’s fast. These guys were doing it three feet a minute. It was really slow.” However, Vaughan guesses that if the special forces members had had more training, they would have beat his record. But despite slowness, the vacuum ascender project was still highly favored.

Their invention shot to stardom in the press, blogs and even television as the Discovery Channel took an interest. Alok Das, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory, visited the university last month to discuss with the College of Engineering how to take the project further with a possible $100,000 grant. Vaughan said the proposal was written up last week.

Team member Steven Daniels said there are two main problems to be worked out now in order to make a prototype the military can use: noise and weight. “The priority is to make it work,” he said simply.

“Of course motors are noisy,” Hansen stated. Whoever is on the team next year will have the task of either muffling the noise or cancelling it altogether, a definite spy movie feat. Finding a lighter battery, or using lighter materials for the suit could possibly reduce its weight. Maybe even making the suction pads smaller and hand sized, like the gloves Tom Cruise used in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol to climb the world’s tallest building in Dubai.

With all but two of the team members leaving Logan for jobs and internships, a new team must be formed to carry on with not only the project, but also future competitions. The task will be different, Hansen said. Das announced to engineering students at USU that next year’s task is to go horizontal—essentially hopping from one roof to another.

Whether the Ascending Aggies members will get the chance to design something like this in their future careers is just a guess. But student Rhet Astle says he wouldn’t mind. “That’s like an engineer’s dream to mess with this stuff as a career,” he said.

AJ

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