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Nov 8, 2017 | By Troy Carter

Replacing Fast Rope? Air Force Academy invents new gear for helo insertions

TechLink ready for industry partner to license and manufacture auto belay insertion system

News Article Image of Replacing Fast Rope? Air Force Academy invents new gear for helo insertions
Sailors, assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 5, fast-rope from MH-60 Seahawks, belonging to the “Island Knights” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 25 (HSC-25), at Naval Base Guam, August 22, 2017. (Benjamin Lewis/Navy)

You’ve seen it in movies like Black Hawk Down, rope sliding soldiers out of a hovering helicopter is both operationally powerful and inherently dangerous. But new technology has been developed that promises safe and accurate airborne insertions that could have commercially interesting civilian applications.

It’s called the ABIS, like falling into the abyss, but stands for auto belay insertion system, and a team of Air Force Academy engineering cadets invented its components for their capstone project.

The cadets’ work has led to four patent applications, but started with brainstorming ways to improve on current insertion methods. Ideas that didn’t fly included inflating boots and Iron Man suits, said Lt. Col. Cory Cooper, director of the systems engineering program at the academy.

Ultimately, the cadets decided to focus on adapting an existing technology found in rock climbing gyms called an auto belay – a self-regulating braking device that lowers a fallen climber at a safe, constant rate.

Their challenge was in mounting an auto belay device to a helicopter, which had never been done before, and adding a hand brake.

“Why do you want a brake? The community’s we talked to (said) if you’re coming on station over a building or over a ship, and say the vehicle drifts off of the building, or the ship changes where it’s at,” Cooper said. “You’d like to have the ability to brake or else you’re going to go for a swim or off the side of a building.”

An exposed view of the ABIS brake prototype.
An exposed view of the ABIS brake prototype. (Air Force Academy photo)

Over two semesters, the students conducted experiments, built prototypes, and tested their designs. The result was three patent pending devices: an ingenious push-lock attachment for mounting the system to the helicopter, a hand-operated pulley brake that eases into a full stop, and a quick-release harness that also prevents users from tipping over.

“The stakeholders we were talking to wanted to be off it as soon as possible,” Cooper said while discussing the quick release at a conference in September (video below). “Once their feet touch the ground, or in some cases a couple of inches before.”

The demonstrated system also automatically retracts back to the helo after the operator disconnects, whereas bulky fast ropes are often cut loose and left behind.

With the inventions disclosed, TechLink, the Department of Defense’s national partnership intermediary, is seeking industry partners to license the designs for product development.

Brian Metzger, senior technology manager at TechLink, said the system’s capabilities benefit non-military users like search and rescue and law enforcement operators.

“The ABIS is a solution for a safe method to rapidly descend in a controlled manner and it’s at a high technical readiness level,” Metzger said. “Once a small business gets a patent license, they could immediately begin building product.”

Troy Carter can be reached at troy.carter@montana.edu or 406-994-7798.

Up next: How to license technology from defense laboratories