Trapped on a high floor? Reach for today's featured Invention Award winner.
As the 9/11 inferno unfolded on television, one question kept dogging Kevin Stone: Why weren't the people trapped in the World Trade Center able to make their way to safety? "I said to myself, This is crazy," recalls Stone, an orthopedic surgeon and seasoned inventor in San Francisco. "There should be a better way to exit a skyscraper when something like this happens."Invention: Rescue Reel
Stone found all the existing systems for rescuing people from high places to be flawed or impractical, so he designed a device based on a fishing reel, a simple harness that would lower people steadily from skyscraper heights on a secure length of cord. The Rescue Reel affords people an easy way to engineer their own escape: All users have to do is open a file-drawer-size container and hook a Kevlar cord to a secure object or connection point (such as between a door and its frame). Then they step directly into the one-size-fits-all harness and rappel through an open window up to 100 stories from the ground. No special training is needed, and the entire sequence could take less than a minute.
Stone's major innovation is a centrifugal braking system that automatically controls the rate of descent. The Rescue Reel's cord unwinds from a spool and wraps around a shaft connected to a brake. As the shaft spins, a set of brake pads exerts force on the inner edge of the brake housing, smoothly slowing the user down. Should the automatic brake fail, the device is also equipped with a manual backup brake lever. Descending from 100 stories up takes less than four minutes—about two seconds per story.
Now that testing is complete, Stone is preparing to market the Rescue Reel. A commercial-ready version should be available next year for about $1,500. He foresees lowering the price considerably once he starts mass production, making it practical for building owners who want to give their tenants an escape clause.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.