EPSCoR Proposal for

a Drop Test Facility

J. Mahoney, D. Custer, and R. Knaggs
Marlboro College, Marlboro, VT 05344
March 1996


By combining an innovative approach to physics education with a testing problem faced by the US climbing industry, this initiative suggests a single solution that will satisfy both by creating a unique applied research laboratory in southern Vermont.

An effective way to introduce undergraduates to science is to pose relevant tractable problems that require both mathematical analysis and hands-on activity. Finding and funding such projects is often accomplished by combining industry and academia, as is done in engineering COOPs, where industry contributes both problems and resources. Currently, Marlboro College does not have the resources or industry connections to provide its students with these research opportunities.

While Marlboro students are looking for problems, the climbing industry is generating them. Because climbing has recently become a mainstream sport, climbing equipment manufacturers must now provide a new level of product reliability. Such reliability requires both the development of testing standards and independent labs to apply them.

If Marlboro College were in a position to develop climbing equipment standards and the test equipment, it would be able to provide relevant hands-on problems that are accessible to students with a semester of college physics. The development aspect poses genuine research questions for students, and the testing lab can both provide industry with test results and generate further income to sustain such research.

The Question

We want to determine how well rock climbing equipment performs. While this question is open ended, the answers ultimately require reproducible simulations of the physics of a falling climber. The proposed facility is requisite to answering any question that might be posed about climbing equipment. Specific sample questions from a similar initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an early progress report from that initiative are included in Appendix A. A review of the basic physics involved may be found in an older article by Microsys [1].

The Proposed Facility

We envision using the EPSCoR grant as start-up money primarily for the purchase of equipment to construct a general purpose drop test facility that will both simulate the forces produced by a falling climber and measure the effects of these forces on various climbing equipment, as specified in the CENN and ASTM standards (see Appendix B). The basic components are shown below in figure 1. A steel weight is used in lieu of a climber, and is attached to a load cell with attached stress sensors. Secure anchor points and rope length determine the fall distance. A strain gauge conditioner amplifies load cell signals, and analogue force information is passed to a computerized data acquisition system.

The approximate cost of this equipment is
Item Approximate Cost ($) notes
hoist 500
load cell 500 custom made

anchors 100
sensors 100
electronics 300 for signal conditioning

cables 200
data acquisition hardware 700 e.g. National Instruments DAQ Card 1200 777087-02
data acquisition software 1300 e.g. N.I's LABView, 776690-01
computer 2200 e.g. PowerBook 5300cs/100, M3825LL/A
5900 total requested equipment cost
We have also budgeted $2400 for salary and travel support for the three participants during the summer of 1996 and following academic year.

Our intent is to create a facility which will be self-sustaining, by attracting funding from the climbing industry as well as the NSF, under either the Directorate for Education or the Directorate for Engineering.

Impact on Research and Education in Vermont

The independent testing facility that we have described here is not duplicated anywhere in the US; currently, all US rope manufactures send their products to Europe for testing. Several European nations have certified rope testing facilities as part of their national labs or university system, similar to what we are proposing to build.

Once operational, this facility could be made available to students at several levels, and throughout southern Vermont. Marlboro College already supports a small observatory, which aside from student research projects has a steady stream of elementary and high school groups who come to see the stars. A facility to test climbing gear could be used in a similar way, both for physics undergraduates from Marlboro and other colleges, as well as a demonstration facility for primary and secondary students.

We may also eventually be able to offer small summer classes which use this facility as a laboratory for investigating basic notions of force, energy, statistics, and experimental physics.

Background and Personal Expertise

Marlboro College itself is a tiny (260 students, 35 faculty) liberal arts college in southern Vermont. The college has a variety of science and humanities students, many of whom are avid rock-climbers. Since the current lab facilities at the college are limited, this equipment will be a valuable addition. The digital/analogue hardware and software, in particular, will be useful for other laboratory applications as well, such as acoustics and electronics projects.

Dr. Mahoney is the entire physics and astronomy department at the college. He has recently worked at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on supercomputer simulations of cosmological large-scale galactic structure. The proposed research will take him in a new, more "down to earth" direction which will be more accessible to members of the Marlboro community.

Randy Knaggs directs Marlboro's Outdoor Program. An experienced teacher of rock climbing, he has been involved in several programs which combine academic learning with field projects. Randy is also a former elevator shaft technician, and therefore an expert rigger.

Dave Custer, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a consultant on the proposed project, has over the past three years been supervising undergraduate climbing equipment research under the auspices of the Edgerton Center and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. He is an avid climber. He is participating in the Marlboro initiative because MIT trademark limitations forbid the testing of consumer products.


A facility to test mountaineering gear at Marlboro College would serve as a research and educational resource for students in southern Vermont. Such a facility could be built for a modest amount of money, and supported on an on-going basis by the college, industry, and NSF resources.

As the NSF Director Neal Lane stated recently [2], "new leadership [is] needed from the research community to carry our understanding of science and its value into the life of our own communities." We believe that the applied research we are proposing here is one way of accomplishing just that, by approaching a common sport - rock climbing - from a scientific direction, and engaging a wider audience in the methods of physics.


[1] H.F. Microys, "Climbing Ropes", American Alpine Journal, 1977, pg 130

[2] NSF Director N. Lane, "Science and the American Dream: Healthy or History",

AAAS Annual Meeting, February 9, 1996

Executive Summary

A Drop Test Facility

J. Mahoney, D. Custer, and R. Knaggs

Marlboro College, Marlboro, VT 05344

March 1996


We are proposing the construction of a laboratory at Marlboro College which will study the properties of mountain climbing equipment. The lab will test compliance with the appropriate standards, participate in the development of these standards, and examine the physics implicit in this growing sport. At the same time, it will serve as an excellent undergraduate science education tool as well as a demonstration site for secondary schools and the wider public.


The facility essentially consists of a mechanical device to simulate a falling climber together with the sensors and data acquisition equipment to measure the results. We intend to build this apparatus during the summer of `96 and the following academic year, and use it on a regular basis thereafter for testing, general investigations, student projects, and perhaps summer workshops. The bulk of the EPSCoR funds will be used for equipment to accomplish this, with the remainder spent on support. We plan to pursue ongoing NSF and industry funding.

Impact on research infrastructure in Vermont

There are no independent testing facilities of this kind anywhere in the United States, though some exist in academic settings in Europe. Therefore, this laboratory would be a unique resource for both the climbing industry as well as the Vermont educational community. Moreover, the physics program at Marlboro College will be strengthened by this equipment, which will be useful in several endeavors outside the current proposal.