The Army, The Inventor And The Surprising Uses Of A Batman Machine

Sep 5, 2017
Originally published on September 5, 2017 12:10 pm

Sometimes the true value of an invention isn't obvious until people start using it.

Consider what happened to inventor Nate Ball and his powered ascender. About 15 years ago, Ball was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when the U.S. Army approached MIT with a request: Can somebody build a powered device that can pull somebody up a rope, like Batman does?

"We looked at each other and said, 'That sounds awesome. We'd love to build that,' " Ball recalls.

The Army wanted the device for rescue operations, like lifting wounded soldiers or hauling someone out of the water. Ball's idea was to build a battery-powered winch that someone could wear around their waist.

In 2005, he formed a company called Atlas Devices to work on the project, and eventually it paid off. "Twelve years later, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears along the way, Atlas Devices gets to build those powered ascenders," Ball says.

Atlas Devices sells the ascenders to the Army, and the Army uses them in rescue operations, as expected. So do fire departments and other first responders.

But Ball also noticed that utility companies started buying them, and when he contacted them to ask why, they explained they were using the ascender to install live power lines called conductors.

"They actually pick up the conductors and raise them up into the air and attach them to the tower," he says. It was an application he had never considered.

That experience led to a revelation.

"Sometimes you come up with a concept and put it out into the world with an initial vision for what it's good for, and how people are going to use it," he says. "Then they come up with new ways to use it. And that's one of the most exciting things about putting something new into the world, is you actually don't know what it might get used for."

Of course, there's a long history of inventions finding unexpected uses. For example, in 1953 the Rocket Chemical Company was trying to develop solvent that would displace water from the surface of metals. Their 40th attempt was successful, and the water displacement solvent was initially used to protect the outer skin of missiles, but WD-40 also became popular around the house as a lubricant.

Or the case of Pfizer chemists who were looking for a drug to treating high blood pressure and chest pain. The drug flopped for those uses, but Viagra became quite popular when used for other applications.

Ball says the same thing has happened with a seemingly straightforward invention: the ladder.

After Ball built the ascender, the military approached Atlas Devices about designing a ladder that was strong, but lightweight and segmented so it was easy to carry. "Ladders can still benefit from a lot of innovation," Ball says.

Ball and his colleagues designed and built such a ladder. The military liked it, but used it in unexpected ways. In addition to using it to climb, in at least one instance a group of soldiers took the device apart and turned it into a kind of stretcher.

Ball now considers this kind of thing a part of the invention process: designing new devices, but then working closely with the people who use them to figure out what they're really useful for. In the ladder example, he's now added straps to the ladder to make it easier to carry when used as a stretcher.

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Hurricane Harvey has been called unprecedented in its flooding and destruction along the Texas coast. And it also provides an unprecedented opportunity for drones. About a year ago, the Federal Aviation Administration eased restrictions on professional drone use. And now those drones and their operators have descended on the greater Houston area to help assess the damage. Aarian Marshall wrote about these drones for Wired. Welcome to the program.

AARIAN MARSHALL: Hi there, Robert. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And what kind of damage is being evaluated these days through drones?

MARSHALL: There's actually a lot of reasons that drones can be used after Hurricane Harvey - infrastructure, agriculture to transportation, things like roads and bridges. And then also to evaluate insurance claims on people's personal homes.

SIEGEL: So who's actually using the drones to assess the damage?

MARSHALL: Well, in the wake of the hurricane, there were actually 43 different organizations that got special authorizations from the FAA to operate drones in the area. The railroad got one. Also, a number of media organizations got them. And then also some insurance companies were allowed to go in and start doing some inspections, as well as oil and gas companies as well to make sure everything is OK there, there's no oil or gas leaking. That would be very bad for the folks who live around the Houston area.

SIEGEL: Let's focus on the use of the drones by insurance companies to assess damage. How useful is a drone, actually? It can't see inside buildings to see what the damage is.

MARSHALL: Sure, that's definitely true. But drones are actually very, very helpful for insurance companies. I spoke to some folks over at Allstate insurance who are using drones to evaluate for the first time in this - for a disaster of this severity. So drones are very nimble. They're very fast. They're less dangerous than putting people up on roofs or putting helicopters in the air. And they can actually - thanks to the really advanced cameras that you can mount on drones these days, you can zoom in and look at the damage to even a specific shingle. It can get that specific. So what they can also do is relay a live feed over to claims adjusters who are sitting in their offices. So hopefully the folks over there in Houston, in the Houston area will start getting insurance money paid out as soon as possible.

SIEGEL: Typically how big are these drones that are being used over Houston?

MARSHALL: The drones are generally less than 55 pounds. So they're not gigantic. They're not those military predator drones you might see on TV. But they're not that tiny either. If one fell on you it would hurt, which is why there are professionals who have to take really intense pilot tests to operate them.

SIEGEL: You're describing a - what could be a great breakthrough for the use of drones. Does the magnitude, does the number of drones in the sky pose any particular challenges?

MARSHALL: Definitely. It will be an interesting test for the FAA's regulations for small drone operation, which they rolled out almost exactly a year ago. Those rules say that drones have to stay below 400 feet in the air, you have to be able to see the drone when you're flying it, and you can't fly over densely populated areas. So it'll be interesting to see what happens in Texas and whether these rules are really working out. I know the FAA is working very closely with the people on the ground there. So they're definitely monitoring the situation. So we'll see what happens.

SIEGEL: Aarian Marshall, a reporter for Wired. Thanks.

MARSHALL: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.