LOGAN -- Utah State University student teams have built bridges and scaled walls to top honors in the Air Force Research Laboratory's Design Challenge the last two years.
This spring, two teams came out on top by creating a light, portable bridge that, like a web, would allow for safe movement between roof tops or terrain with deep gaps. Last year, two other USU student design teams won the competition by inventing the Personal Vacuum Assisted Climber, which allows the wearer to quickly scale a 90-foot wall.
"A lot of people compared the wall climbing with Spiderman," said Rhet Astle, a leader of one of the PVAC teams. "We thought of it more like a 'Ghost Buster' system, because of the vacuum. That was our theme song on campus. We played it whenever we were testing the system."
For Astle and his team, the first field trip was to a local thrift shop.
"We bought a used shop vac from Deseret Industries," said Astle.
The Air Force was looking for a way to climb walls without grappling hooks, Astle said. The device had to be light, but hold 300 pounds. It had to be capable of climbing a 90-foot wall.
"During the design phase, you brainstorm as much as you can, and try to come up with at least three possible solutions," Astle said.
The USU systems would consist of a powerful vacuum, with suction pads rimmed with air-sealant strips; a harness to hold the device on the user; and metal footwear to help the climber find tiny footholds in the wall's surface, for added stability, and allow PVAC users to support their body weight during the climb.
Both USU teams came up with fairly similar devices and won the multi-day event by using elements from both.
"It was awesome," Astle said. "We all cheered. It was really cool."
Several team members have found employment in the design field due in large part to their work on the project, Astle said. He continues to hone the PVAC device, and sees lots of sporting and recreational applications for such a product, besides its potential value to the military.
This year's Air Force challenge was the lightweight, portable bridge. Preston Rich, 25, North Logan, served as leader of one team of mechanical engineering students. Clair Hawkins, now employed at a design firm in Tucson, led the other team.
"The teams were isolated from each other for the first half of the year, but we had some cross-pollination afterward," Rich said. "The basic requirement was we had to span 20 feet and support 350 pounds, simulating a fully loaded soldier. They wanted the (device) weight as close to 20 pounds as possible, and they wanted the whole system to collapse and be less than 5 cubic feet in volume."
Hawkins said his whole team was excited to attend the competition.
"We went in with respect, and we were interested to see everyone's creativity," he said. "I was impressed with our team and everything we accomplished. I was excited that Utah State came out with far superior products."
"It was neat at the competition to see how much Utah State stood out as the clear winners," he said. "It's great to see the quality of the education we got, and how that translates into our ability to create real-world products."