STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
On Mondays we focus on technology, and today military technology emerging from one of the country's leading universities. An engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has won a prize for his invention aimed at helping U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This device was on a wish list that the military gives MIT every year. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD: At a rock quarry south of Boston, MIT graduate student Nathan Ball is zipping up and down a 50-foot-high cliff, using climbing ropes and a prototype of what he calls the Atlas Power Ascender.
M: What you're looking at is kind of like a super high-power power tool. And the operation's very similar to a cordless drill.
ARNOLD: But instead of turning a drill bit, the rotary head on the ascender spins to pull a rope.
M: So I clip the carabiner into the device, and clip that same carabiner into my climbing harness.
ARNOLD: The device is designed to help soldiers and Marines who have to drop into caves or wells in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, Ball says, that's done by hand. And if insurgents are down there, the soldier has to yell and hope the other troops in his unit can pull him up fast enough. So Nathan Ball has designed this device to let a soldier fly up out of a situation like that much faster.
M: At ten feet per second, that's about as fast as you'd be going after like 20 feet of freefall. It's almost like falling upward. So you really have to be ready to hit the wall and bounce off it to like go over that piece of overhang up there for instance.
ARNOLD: Ball takes a deep breath, looks up at the uneven rock face towering over him and gets ready to hit the on switch.
M: Looks good. Three, two, one.
ARNOLD: Wow, that pretty cool. You really flew up that wall.
M: Yeah. It was pretty quick.
ARNOLD: This invention is one of more than a dozen being worked on by MIT students through the school's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. At a campus lab here, researchers are working on new kinds of super small, super strong fibers for high-tech body armor and other applications. Much of the research is longer term, so spokesman Franklin Hadley says recently the institute's been working with the military to come up with ideas for inventions that aren't necessarily so nanotech but that could be built more quickly.
M: Maybe we can come up with much shorter term solutions to problems that soldiers are facing right now.
ARNOLD: Students have built a prototype water purifier that runs off the heat from an exhaust pipe. Others are working on a glove that can translate hand signals into voice commands to be transmitted to other soldiers. And there's the Atlas power ascender. Army Major Rex Blair is getting a Master's in physics at Harvard and doing research at the MIT lab. He did a tour in Iraq, in Baghdad.
M: As soon as I saw that Atlas device, I thought I would have loved to have had that as a company commander.
ARNOLD: Blair says the powerful little winch could be used to drag obstacles out of the road or rip a door off its hinges. And he says when a variable speed control is added, it might be good for hoisting wounded soldiers. Blair says in Iraq, helicopters sometimes can't come in for a rescue if there are too many trees or buildings around. He remembers driving five miles in the dark one night to find a safe landing zone with a critically wounded friend of his screaming in the back of his truck.
M: I can tell that he's getting worse, because, you know, his wounds were so grave. And I'm thinking we just got to get to the helicopter.
ARNOLD: His friend made it but other soldiers didn't. Blair thinks the new winch could hoist injured soldiers up to a rooftop of a building where a helicopter could pick them up more quickly.
M: You put him on the ascender, lock him in and he's up in five to ten seconds. That's an incredible capability to do to save soldiers lives.
ARNOLD: Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.
INSKEEP: And you can see Nathan Ball's Atlas Powered Rope Ascender in action at NPR.org.
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