The last few years have seen the release of several new or updated "passive" assisted locking devices, including the ATC Pilot from Black Diamond. We tested it head to head against Mammut's Smart 2.0 and came away liking both of them, but for different applications. They both provide the extra security of locking up all of the way and taking the pressure off your brake hand when compared to other tubular devices, though the manufacturers both state that you should always keep your hand on the rope just in case. And they both cost significantly less than most "active" assisted braking devices like the Petzl GriGri+ or 2. The Smart 2.0 ultimately edged out the ATC Pilot for our Best Buy award because we liked the way the rope fed out through the Smart 2.0 better when belaying a lead climber. However, we preferred the ATC Pilot for top roping and lowering scenarios. Note that the use for both of these devices is limited, as they can only handle one strand of rope and work for single pitch climbing only.
Black Diamond ATC Pilot Review
Compare prices at 4 resellers Pros: Passive locking provides extra security and takes pressure off your belay hand
Cons: Doesn't feed smoothly - you have to keep a lot of pressure on your thumb, limited use and functionality
Manufacturer: Black Diamond
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Black Diamond ATC Pilot is a "geometry assisted" belay device for ropes in the 8.7 to 10.5 mm range. When the rope is weighted the angle of the device changes, locking the rope down, though, as we mentioned above, you still need to keep your brake hand on the rope. Speaking of your brake hand, it's not right-hand dominant like most other assisted belay devices, so left-handed climbers can belay with it the "opposite" way if that feels more natural to them.
We liked the catch on this device and felt like it provided almost the same security as the active locking devices like the Petzl GriGri + and 2 and the Camp Matik. There's little to no slippage like you experience from the tube style devices, and should you get knocked around in the fall you can be reasonably sure that the mechanism will engage completely. We did encounter some creepage one or two occasions, though we found it tough to replicate them. Because of variances in rope diameter, belay carabiners, and friction from quickdraw placement or route wandering, it is hard for us to say for certain when or how this device is likely to creep, though it mostly happened in gym scenarios with little friction in the system. BD states that the Pilot should only be used with larger Type H or HMS carabiners, and always on the larger side if using a divided carabiner like the Gridlock.
We liked the lowering function of the ATC Pilot better than the Smart 2.0. The curved plastic housing on the Pilot was more comfortable to hold onto than the sharp metal edges of the Smart 2.0 and the rope stayed in the shorter track better. Unlike tube-style devices, where you have to loosen your grip on the rope for it lower, the Pilot requires you to pull back on the device to disengage the camming function. If we were solely choosing one of these passive belay devices for top roping, we'd choose the Pilot since we liked the lower better. As for rappelling, Black Diamond doesn't say that you can't do it, though it would only work for single rope rappels, which is not always useful.
Here is where we were underwhelmed with the performance of the Pilot. Both the Pilot and Smart 2.0 feed out slack in a similar manner. You have to exert upward pressure with the thumb of your brake hand to "unlock" the device while pulling out slack with your other hand. The Pilot required more thumb pressure than the Smart 2.0 (and more constant pressure throughout a belay) to get the rope to pay out smoothly. If we weren't constantly pushing the device out to the maximum amount, it would start to lock up on us, unlike the Smart which didn't require as much exertion.
Auto block (resistance belaying a second)
The Pilot is not made for belaying a second off an anchor, so we could not test or rate it for this category. If you are looking for a device that can do this, the Black Diamond ATC Guide was our Top Pick for Multi-Pitch Climbing.
The Pilot weighs 3.2 ounces (same as the ATC Guide) and doesn't take up much room in your pack. It has a slightly smaller profile than the Smart 2.0, but that device weighs slightly less (2.7 ounces).
The braking surface on the Pilot is made of steel, but the housing is plastic. We saw no issues with the housing during our testing period, and it survived some hand to ground level falls. This is a relatively new product, and so there aren't a lot of other user reviews out there for us to compare longer-term durability issues such as cracking or grooving. We do like the steel option for where the rope runs through when compared to the plastic insert on the Smart 2.0. Note that both of these products will wear out your belay carabiners (similar to other tubular devices) unlike a GriGri where the rope runs inside a housing the whole way.
After using this product for months we have some certain scenarios where we loved the Pilot, and other times where we'd opt for a different device instead. It works well for top roping situations best, in our estimation, particularly for times when it would be this vs. a tubular device. While the belayer must still have their brake hand on the rope at all times, it doesn't require as much effort to hold or lower their partner. Since it's so much cheaper than most auto-locking devices, this is a great option for programs or climbing gyms that want the extra security of the auto-lock without the expense when buying multiple units. If you are looking for one for lead-belaying, we preferred the action on the Mammut Smart 2.0 and would go with that unit instead.
This device retails for $45, which is quite less than a GriGri+ ($150) but more than the Mammut Smart 2.0 ($35). It is a bit of a one-trick pony though, and you'll get more versatility out of the ATC Guide ($30).
If your first thought upon looking at the Black Diamond ATC Pilot is "what's the point of this device?" you wouldn't be alone! However, it does serve a useful purpose for certain scenarios, and we can see gyms that like to have a pre-rigged GriGri on every toprope opt for the Pilot instead due to the cost savings. It also shaves a couple of ounces off your rack, so if you're looking to lighten up all of your gear, this will help you towards that goal.
— Cam McKenzie Ring