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Miniature motors help bring greater safety to climbing

Miniature motors help bring greater safety to climbing

In climbing, the role of the belayer is critical: he literally has the life of the climber in his hands. It’s not just in sports, either, with professional climbers also working on power lines or the facades of high-rise buildings. But now a fledgling company from Munich has brought the world’s first automatic belayer onto the market, called EPIC. With this device the climber can safely climb without a second person. Faulhaber motors, available in the UK from EMS provide a secure grip and a taut rope.

Development of 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. He established his company Auroco with business studies graduate Jan Lohse in 2011 in order to turn the concept into a commercially viable product. The first prototype emerged in 2012, and the reliability of the newly-developed securing technology was con-firmed with DEKRA certification in 2014. Widmesser produced the first series production order batch of one hundred units single-handedly. The company has now undergone significant growth due to crowd funding and an outstanding reaction to the product.

 “EPIC is the first automatic securing system for climbers that can handle lead climbing, second climbing and abseiling mechatronically,” says Lohse. “During lead climbing, the climber attaches the rope to a carabiner every two meters. 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 and is pulled upwards by the belayer. The belayer must keep the rope taut during lead climbing and second climbing so that a fall is stopped immediately.”

EPIC can take over this task completely. This brick-sized device controls the rope using two motors. The first motor takes care of winding, and the other is responsible for braking. The rope runs between two profile discs which prevent it from slipping. 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. It can be fastened to any fixed structure such as the base of an electricity pylon. 

During lead climbing, the rope motor idles so that the climber can tighten the rope without using force. If he has pulled up too much rope and dangerous ‘slack rope’ is produced, he gives the command to tighten the rope by radio. In order to do this, he wears a radio module on his arm that communicates with the securing device via Bluetooth. The first motor now winds up the loose rope. During second climbing, ie when the climber is following a suspended rope, he can choose whether the battery-operated motor should tighten the slack rope by command or automatically.

The second motor is responsible for braking and blocks the rope, for example, if the climber wants to take a break and has issued an appropriate command. When abseiling, the brake automatically unwinds the rope from the roller at a defined speed, and the climber can ‘hang out’ in a relaxed way. However, the brake motor is also responsible for securing. A triple-axis acceleration sensor is installed in the radio module. In the event of a fall, this transmits an emergency signal to the securing device within 30 milliseconds, which then operates the brake.

“Of course, we don’t rely on just one system,” stresses Lohse. “The securing is designed with double redundancy.” The second mechanism: in the event of a fall, the rope sets the rope pulley and therefore the rope motor into fast motion. The significant speed increase is the signal for the pulley to become an electricity-generating generator. It now supplies the brake motor with energy and uses this to activate the brake. This guarantees that reliable braking is provided, even if the battery is empty. As a third securing mechanism there is an all-mechanical centrifugal clutch which closes the brake as soon as the roller starts rotating at speed.

The fast rotating 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. “After consulting with us, the customer decided to use the copper-graphite-commutated motors from the 2657... CXR series,” explains Faulhaber’s Andreas Eiler.

“The second, more powerful drive, a 3257...CR, provides the power for abseiling and braking. It bears the weight of the climber with its static torque rating.” Gearheads in the 26/1 and 32A model series provide power transmission, and a robust IE3 encoder monitors the speed. Perfect functionality of these drive and control components is literally life-saving as far as EPIC is concerned. “The certification proves that they do their job reliably, even under the harsh conditions that are usually the case when climbing,” says Lohse. “They are not adversely affected by strong vibrations or extreme temperatures.”

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