AFRL gives helping hand to operators with Tactical Fast Rope Gloves

Air Force photograph by Lt. Col. Sheena Winder

A Tech Warrior participant uses Tactical Fast Rope Gloves, developed through the Junior Force Warfighters Operations program, to descend a rope during the 2016 Tech Warrior exercises, landing safely and experiencing no discomfort from friction-related heat.

Air Force Research Laboratory junior force researchers from the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate are working to solve a common problem for deployed troops and quick-response forces, and in doing so, may offer new solutions for civilian firefighters and rescuers as well.

As part of the Junior Force Warfighters Operations, or JFWORX, program, these researchers are finding ways to improve the fast rope gloves that are used by troops when descending from helicopters during missions.

These operators are often required to exit quickly from a helicopter in locations where it is unsafe or inadvisable for the helicopter to land.  To make the descent, these troops slide down a large rope called a fast rope, much like a firefighter slides down a pole in the firehouse.  In this case, however, the descent is significantly longer, down a heavy, flexible rope usually made of nylon. 

Sliding down the fast rope naturally creates friction, which transfers heat through the protective fast rope gloves and can burn the users’ hands.  Operators attempt to overcome this problem in a number of ways.  One way is by wearing two sets of gloves for extra protection and removing the outer glove after the descent.  However, the double-thickness of the gloves limits finger movement, and taking off the outer glove takes a certain degree of care and time that may not be prudent in a battlefield situation.  Another way troops deal with this issue is to jump away from the rope prematurely, so that the heat does not have as much time to transfer through the gloves.  This solution, of course, can lead to injury.

“Our product is designed to provide maximum thermal protection with minimal material, so that the resulting product can be flexible and conformal, but still effective. We want to prevent our troops from having to improvise or create work-arounds,” said Dr. Carmen Carney, who manages the project.

In designing the Tactical Fast Rope Gloves, Carney and her team analyzed and evaluated currently-used fast-rope gloves and determined that adding a flexible insulating foam layer would significantly reduce heat transfer while keeping the final product thin and conformal.  The hope was to design a one-glove system that would not necessitate a second outer protective glove, but would still protect from friction burns.

To test the design, researchers took a prototype set of gloves to Tech Warrior 2016, an annual training and testing exercise conducted by AFRL.  Trained operators used the gloves to fast-rope 12 times and rappel once.  The operators evaluated the gloves for thermal protection, flexibility, and performance during descent.  All of the operators rated the gloves’ thermal protection as excellent and reported no thermal discomfort, even though temperatures of 170 °F were measured on the outside of the gloves immediately after use.

“These findings were very encouraging.” said Carney.  “Through this real-word experiment, we could see that we were right on track with our design efforts.”

Using these findings, the AFRL research team is now working to improve dexterity, durability and other issues, and to incorporate design features to make them more useful and practical for users.  The team is also working with the foam supplier to incorporate the foam into a more standardized fast roping glove.  They hope to then distribute the gloves to more users for evaluation at varying rope lengths and in ground-training exercises.

“We are excited about this project.  We believe with further improvements we can provide a practical solution to the warfighter,” said Carney. 
Carney adds that the team expects ultimately to transition the gloves for firefighters, emergency response personnel, and other industries that require thermal management equipment.