Since MIT spinout Atlas Devices’ flagship product, the Atlas Powered Rope Ascender (APA), first hit the market in 2007, it’s been touted as a real-world version of Batman’s famed utility-belt grappling gun: At the pull of a trigger, the handheld device can hoist two people about 30 stories up a rope in 30 seconds. Now the device is becoming a practical tool for motorized scaling (or “power ascension”) in the military and other fields.

Atlas Device's APA-5 can lift 600 pounds, up a rope, at speeds of several feet per second.
Roughly the size of a small shoebox, the aluminum-cased APA has a handle with direction control switches (up or down) and a trigger. An innovative rope-feeding, capstan-based mechanism ensures that the battery-powered device can lift two soldiers — sometimes carrying 80 to 100 pounds of equipment — swiftly along an attached rope, without jamming. A lightweight, interchangeable battery capable of hundreds of feet of hoisting per charge snaps into the front.

The latest version, released in 2010, dubbed the APA-5, weighs roughly 20 pounds and can lift up to 600 pounds at speeds of up to several feet per second. First designed for soldiers who plunged into caves and wells in Iraq and Afghanistan, the APA is now being used by all four military branches on the battlefield and in training to climb mountains, buildings, and ships. It’s even being used in helicopter extraction and rescue missions.

Other potential uses include cave exploration and recreational climbing; hoists for workers at dams, buildings, bridges, and massive wind turbines; as well as for first responders.