Typically when climbing, it is essential to have a belayer. Provided that he does not make a mistake, the climber’s fall will be arrested by the rope after one or two meters. Since the climber mostly takes care for his own self-interest, the occasions when this happens are few and far between. However, the belayer must always be vigilant when professional climbers are carrying out corrosion protection work, maintaining telecommunication masts, constructing overhead cable systems or working on crane booms. Anyhow, it was until recently. Now, a leading manufacturer of fall protection has brought the first automatic belayer onto the global market. The specialists have worked closely with a young Munich based company. With the aid of the fallback system the climber can safely climb without a second person. Here, two powerful DC-Micromotors play a key role.
The story of the electronic belay partner EPIC (Electronic Partner for Individual Climbing) began seven years ago at the University of Regensburg. Florian Widmesser, engineering student and enthusiastic climber, developed the concept of automatic securing as part of his thesis. Even at this stage, the drive specialist FAULHABER (cf. company box) was assisting the inventor with motor expertise. Widmesser founded Auroco GmbH together with business studies graduate Jan Lohse in 2011. With the idea to bring fully-automatic rope protection for industry and leisure climbing onto the market, both founders approached Skylotec. The company from Neuwied is among the leading manufacturers of personal protective equipment for fall and fallback systems in the area of sport and industry. A year later, the first prototype emerged and the reliability of the newly-developed securing technology was confirmed with DEKRA certification in 2014. The company has now undergone significant growth due to crowd funding and an outstanding reaction to the product. Use of the devices in practice and sales for different application areas are currently on Skylotec's priority list.
Safety for lead climbing, second climbing and abseiling
EPIC is the first automatic fallback system for climbers that can handle lead climbing, second climbing and abseiling mechatronically. What these terms mean: during lead climbing, the climber attaches the rope to a carabiner about every two meters when ascending. The belayer stays at the bottom and holds the rope. If the climber slips, he will only fall down to the next carabiner. During second climbing, the climber follows a rope that has already been secured further up on the climbing route and is pulled upwards by the belayer.
These tasks are now assumed by the automatic climbing assistant. For lead climbing, the device is secured at ground level. During stationary use such as on a climbing wall, the device can be secured to a wall using screws or click closures. A clamping device is available for mobile use. The fallback system can be fastened to any fixed structure such as the base of an electricity pylon.
Two motors control the rope
This brick-sized device, which is designed for mobile battery operation, controls the rope using two motors. One winds up the rope, the other assumes the brakes. When inspecting a radio mast or a crane boom, the user can extend the safety rope via EPIC and can draw it in again via a remote control command. This is important in order to prevent a slack rope and therefore keep potential fall heights to a minimum. During second climbing, i.e. when the climber is following the suspended rope, he can choose whether the motor should tighten the slack rope by command or automatically. Users always use a remote control, which is easily attached to their arm. The rope can therefore be blocked at any point in order to work or take a break. The second person can now also perform work within ear shot - and react in the event of an emergency.
When abseiling, the brake automatically unwinds the rope from the pulley at a defined speed, and the climber can abseil easily. However, the brake motor is also responsible for securing. In the event of a fall, a sensor transmits an emergency signal to the securing device within 30 milliseconds, which then operates the brake.
Of course, the developers do not rely on a single system. Instead, the securing is designed to have multiple redundancy. In the event of a fall, the EPIC blocks the rope using three sensors and an independent, redundantly operating centrifugal brake. If the user is suspended helplessly after a fall or is even unconscious on the rope and has to be rescued, the colleague can trigger automatic abseiling using a second remote control. If a second remote control is not to hand, an emergency release can also be activated using a rescue key. This mechanism functions independently of the electronics and is triggered directly on EPIC by a second person.
Excessive speed as a challenge for drive technology
The high speed which acts upon the rope motor in the event of a fall was one of the challenges that needed to be met by the drive technology. Up to 25,000 revolutions per minute could destroy a winding mechanism with less quality within an extremely short time. Andreas Eiler, who is responsible for looking after Auroco at FAULHABER, explains. “A powerful motor provides the power for abseiling and braking. It bears the weight of the climber with its static torque rating.”
Perfect function of the drive components is a matter of life or death as far as the automatic safety partner is concerned. The DEKRA certification proves that the drives also work under the harsh conditions that are usually the case when climbing. Neither strong vibrations nor extreme temperatures adversely affect function. The device is certified for industrial use in accordance with EN 341 as an abseiling device for use in combination with PPE to prevent falling. With SKYLOTEC and using the already existing manufacturer’s sales network, both founders have now begun to conquer the market. The first interested parties did not come from the usual sports climber customer group, but from the industry. There are more than 300,000 electricity pylons in Germany alone, which have to undergo regular maintenance. There are also increasing numbers of systems that are difficult to access such as crane booms. The companies can significantly reduce their costs for the prescribed securing with EPIC. Because the person who was previously almost solely responsible for securing their climbing partner can now also carry out work within ear shot. This increases efficiency. Climbing halls and high rope courses also are potential customers, and the company is working hard on developing the device for sports climbing. Furthermore, work is being done on a Smartphone app which will record and analyse the kilometres climbed, speed, elevation in metres, energy consumption, fall height, number of falls and also load values. Jan Lohse is convinced: “Our device will radically change the face of both sports climbing and professional climbing.” The small DC-motors, which control the rope, contribute to this significantly.