Eat your heart out, Andrew Garfield.
While the rest of us wait four more agonizing weeks for the theatrical premiere of The Amazing Spider-Man, student makers at Utah State University actually fabricated their own. Powered by vacuums, the so-called "Ascending Aggies" built their very own wall-crawler for an Air Force competition to help commandos scale tall buildings without stepping into a vehicle or picking up a grappling hook.
The team of engineering undergrads out-competed teams from 16 other universities to win the Air Force Research Laboratory's annual Design Challenge, earning $50,000 in grant money and a chance to win double that. All for what they call a "Vertical Ascender," shown in the video above, that can haul at least 300 pounds — however noisily.
Each Ascender is battery-powered and "designed to operate for about 30 minutes, which was several times the expected climb time," Steven Hansen, the winning team's faculty adviser, tells Danger Room. "For the competition, each university had one hour to train the Special Forces climbers and to get four climbers to the top of the 90-foot wall."
Utah State University is eagerly billing the Vertical Ascender as a "superhero" device, and playing up the Spider-Man parallel. And why not? The military isn't above its love for superheroes. Exoskeletons are named after the Hulk, and the Air Force has a "human chassis" for commandos named after the Batman.
The heart of the Ascender is actually its lungs. Tubes extending from the "Personnel Vacuum Assisted Climber" to pads the size of dinner plates, worn over the hands, provide sufficient suction to get 300 pounds' worth of commando over the wall.
Just one problem. Judging from the video, the Vertical Ascender is way too noisy to be practical. The whine of the Personnel Vacuum Assisted Climber is loud enough to alert any adversary on the other side of the wall that U.S. commandos are crawling up.
Hansen considers stealth — and not, say, incorporating web shooters — the Ascender's next design challenge.
"The students had to focus their attention on finding a solution in a finite period with finite resources to solve a specific objective given to them by the Air Force — and they did it," he says. "The USU College of Engineering has been asked to submit a proposal to secure a $100,000 grant to further develop its winning idea for the Air Force. This includes minimizing size, reducing weight, and making it much more quiet."
None of which is to say that airmen or commandos will be scaling walls with vacuum packs any time soon, even if the Utah team can supe up the design. But there are lots of real-life superheroes who might welcome the chance to play Spider-Man.