As far as Nathan Ball is concerned, the most appealing aspect of Batman is his lack of superpowers. "His capabilities come from gear that can exist in the real world," Ball says.

Batman helped inspire Ball when he took part in a Soldier Design Competition sponsored by the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, back in 2004. During the competition, Ball and three colleagues developed an electronic grappling device that contained a battery-powered motor. The device yanked soldiers up a rappelling cable at a rate of 5 feet per second. "You're not expending any energy," Ball says. "It feels just like flying."

The powered ascender won the third-place award of $3,000. More important, it caught the eye of the U.S. Army. Two months later, Ball and several MIT colleagues founded Atlas Devices in Boston to manufacture and market the device, which is being tested by American soldiers for use in military engagements. The most recent version of the ascender, which the nine-person company developed with the Office of Naval Research's TechSolutions program, is waterproof and weighs just 12 pounds. It can lift up to 500 pounds and span a distance of 600 to 800 feet on one fully charged lithium battery. Soldiers can use it to scale buildings, haul materiel, or even perform helicopter evacuations. They can't, however, shoot a grappling hook to the top of a tall building the way Batman can. The Atlas Power Ascender must be attached to a stationary object by a person.

Next, Ball plans to develop nonmilitary uses for the device, including firefighting. Thanks to the Caped Crusader, he has an easy time explaining the concept to prospective clients. "I just tell them we make the Batman hook," he says.