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TECHNOLOGY

High performing rope takes weight off

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Squid Labs has added microscopic stainless steel strands to rope, making it electrically conductive.

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EMERYVILLE, California (CNN) -- High-tech is not a word often used to describe a piece of rope, but add a data sensor to its fibers and you have what its creators call electronic rope technology.

Technical textiles are not new -- think Kevlar, Mylar, Gore-Tex, Teflon and Velcro.

But where this rope differs is not how it is made, but what it can do, which is its ability to sense its own load and signal any weakness, sending the information to a handheld device well before it frays and gives way.

The intelligent rope is the brainchild of California-based Squid Labs, an "early stage research and development company" made up of mostly MIT Media Lab graduates.

Saul Griffith, of Squid Labs, told CNN the invention looked like ordinary rope but had "active" threads -- metallic wires that can carry data and send it to a handheld receiver -- embedded in it.

The invention is made possible by advances in textile technology that have brought about mass production of electrically active fibers.

"Internal to the rope, inside the core, are a small proportion of conducting fibers, and as we pull on the rope, we change the structure of the braid and that changes the resistance, and that gives us the sensing capacity," Griffith told CNN.

"As I pull down on the rope you can see it modulating the load in this prototype sensor."

Griffith said the idea for the smart rope came about accidentally.

"It actually came from an idea where we wanted to analyze the load of a four-string kites or paragliders," he said.

"We needed a new type of sensor to do that cheaply and in real time. Then, once we developed the early-stage prototypes, it gave us an idea that this was going to be useful for more diverse applications."

The threads can be made to be waterproof and Griffith said other uses for the invention could include climbing and lifting applications, rock climbing and other sports that involve ropes, optimizing sails on yachts and mooring ships.

Squid Labs is currently working with customers to make the rope a commercial product.

The company also exhibited work at "Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance," an exhibition at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York earlier this year, which showcased precision-engineered materials.

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