Outrageous Experiments

Myth Database – Climbing Like Spider-Man

posted: 02/19/17
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Check Out a Clip From the Myth and Scroll Down for the Breakdown
MYTH: You can build a vacuum-powered rig that will allow you to climb a building like Spider-Man.


Can you build a cordless vacuum-cleaner-based rig that will allow you to scale a building like Spider-Man? For this myth, the Blue Team consisted of Hackett, Martin and Tamara; Red was Jon, Brian and Allen. The teams had just two days to complete their build before attempting to scale a seven-story concrete building.

After deciding to create hand-held vacuum paddles, the Blue Team wanted to get a sense of the vacuum's power, which is measured in inches of mercury. Connecting the vacuum's hose to a bottle of water, they turned on the vacuum and saw that the water rose 39 inches, which is 3 inches of mercury or 1.5 PSI. That doesn't sound like much, but the relationship between surface area and PSI is linear: the more surface area, the more mass the vacuum can support. With two cordless vacuums at their disposal, each team just had to find the suction sweet spot: a large enough suction footprint to support the weight of climber and rig, but a small enough footprint to still be portable.

Given the likely imperfect surface of the wall, and therefore the improbability of a perfect seal, the Blue Team over-engineered their paddles. First, they went with a circular design, in order to keep the surface area as small as possible to hold their weight. Second, they made the paddles about 300 square inches, which when multiplied by the vacuum's 1.5 PSI, allows the paddles to hold 450 pounds. Finally, to maximize their suction to the wall, the team chose a foam rubber mat and built a lighter housing for the vacuum.

Meanwhile, Hackett worked on the suction paddles for their feet, designing a swinging stirrup for maximum maneuverability. Coupled with the small, circular paddles, he thought the stirrups would make climbing the seven stories easier due to flexibility.

The Red Team, on the other hand, decided on a 10 inch by 10 inch (100 square inch) paddle. An initial test on a smooth inside wall was impressive, but a subsequent test on an imperfect outside wall revealed a suction of half the strength. The team instead decided on a 1 foot by 4 foot panel with a double-vac backpack. The vacuums attached to the two rigid, rectangular paddles, with a steel foot plate for stability. Each paddle was further outfitted with a release valve to stop suction without turning off the vacuums.

When the very fit, 200-pound Jon tried the new paddles, he was able to scale up the wall quickly. But the ergonomics didn't suit Allen or Brian, both taller than Jon. They tweaked their design to include straps to try and keep their body weight close to the paddles.

Back on the Blue Team, the 100-pound Tamara was able to quickly scale the wall using their rig and wooden stirrups. The design was modified for Martin and Hackett, who weigh more and needed more surface area to hold that weight. In the practice test, Martin was able to scale the wall with the bigger paddles and wooden stirrups; Hackett was unable with his swinging stirrups, and so he continued to tweak his design until time ran out.

The test took place at the Santa Rosa fire tower. Divided into oppositional pairs, each team member had 10 minutes to climb as high as he or she could. At the end of the test, the team with the most vertical distance would be considered the winner.

In the first heat, Tamara made it to the top of the tower -- 70 feet -- in 2 minutes, 58 seconds, but Jon only made it a few feet. It was discovered that on Jon's side of the wall there was a warp, meaning that hid long, rectangular paddle couldn't achieve full suction. Jon was allowed 10 minutes to climb on Tamara's side, and was able to make it up 25 feet.

For the second heat, the Red Team halved their paddles' size in order to combat the curve. As a result, Allen made it up the wall 35 feet; in contrast, Martin only made it 14 feet due to dust interfering with his vacuum's seal. In the final heat, Brian was only able to climb 2 feet, while Hackett with his swinging stirrups made it just 10 feet.

With the final distances tallied, Blue had the edge on Red. So, where does that leave the myth?
The myth was that using a cordless vacuum, you can quickly build a rig that will allow you to climb a building like Spider-Man. Although there were mixed results, it was concluded that with the right rig, and the right person (of the right weight), and the right surface, it can be done.

As a result, the myth was determined plausible.

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