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Ascending Aggies win design competition with superhero device

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LOGAN — A team of engineering students at Utah State University designed what could be the next high-tech device for military special forces. And it just might make superheroes of those who use it.

The Air Force asked engineering students at 17 universities to design a system allowing a team of four special forces personnel to scale buildings or mountain faces under a variety of conditions without a grappling hook. Weight of the system had to be less than 20 pounds, with a goal of 5 pounds.

The students, who now call themselves the Ascending Aggies, created the only successful device, a suction-like contraption that allows people to ascend a 90-degree face much like Spider-Man would. The effort was good enough for first prize in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Design Challenge.

“We’ve got some really clever students that came up with some ideas that no one’s thought of doing,” USU College of Engineering professor Steve Hansen said.

The USU team's design used vacuum suction pads to enable two climbers to quickly scale the wall. “It’s almost like the motion of climbing a ladder,” mechanical engineering student Garrett Vaughan said, “or if you wanna talk superheroes, maybe you can consider Spider-Man.”

This isn't your average vacuum backpack. Each side pulls 4.5 psi of force. “To power it, we’ve got batteries in an ice cream bucket,” said team member Steven Daniels.

The foamy ends conform to the shape of the wall, and on the feet are a type of vinyl liner for traction.

“When we got to climbing and seeing it work, that was really exciting,” Daniels said.

For winning the challenge, the team garnered a $50,000 grant for the USU College of Engineering and will now compete to secure a $100,000 grant to refine the device.

The device is heavier than the team wanted. “If we can make it lighter and a little more usable, then I think it’s got a lot of applications,” Daniels said. Ultimately, professors said it could have a wide range of uses, from rescues to covert operations.

Teams were judged on both objective measures (weight, size, velocity achieved) and subjective measures (ease of operation, usability, stealth, innovation and elegance). Each school received $20,000 and was given about nine months to complete the project.

USU's team included students Michael Deakin, Jordan Stott, Garrett Vaughan, Steven Daniels, TJ Morton, Steve Hansen, Val Callisaya, Tyson Burtenshaw, Rhet Astle, Keith Bates, Daniel Aguirre, Trevor Park, Robert Johnson, James Robinson and Alyssa Wahlin.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc