Hedgehog-inspired full-body airbag would inflate into a personal safety cocoon

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In this rendering, the i Gel protects someone falling off a building by pushing him into a ball and inflating airbags all around him

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Last week's Wearable Technologies Conference in Munich showcased the future of cutting edge wearable design. While much of the exhibitor area was dedicated to usual suspects like performance-tracking sensors and wearable cameras, there was one design that immediately stood out. Still just a rough concept in need of partners, the i Gel protective system proposes a full-body airbag suit for protecting motorcyclists, bikers, skiers, and other hobbyists and professionals.

Current-generation wearable airbags, including the Alpinestars Tech-Air Street airbag system which won a Wearable Technologies Innovation World Cup award at the conference, use sensors to detect a crash and inflate in milliseconds, protecting the vital bones and organs of the upper body with a layer of cushioning. In concepts like the Safety Sphere, we've seen that some designers think that the protection level could be dialed up a lot higher.

It may not look quite as dramatic as the Safety Sphere, but the i Gel protective system, a project headed by German trauma surgeon Dr. Wolfgang Müller-Adam, envisions a similar level of protection. Instead of a limited inflatable vest around the torso, the i Gel system would use up to 20 individual nitrogen-activated airbags to protect the head, torso and lower body. Inspired by the hedgehog's ability to roll into a protective ball, Müller-Adam also imagines the actuation of the system pushing the torso and lower body into a fetal-style ball, further helping to mitigate against injury. Just imagine the difference between flailing around and smashing into the ground or another vehicle without any protection versus rolling into the crash or fall as an airbag-covered ball.

Like other airbag systems, the i Gel would use a series of microelectromechanical system (MEMS) smart sensors to detect crash-level forces and automatically inflate around the wearer. Müller-Adam also told us that he's investigating using long-distance sensors like radar and supersonic sensors to equip the suit with the ability to sense a crash ahead of time, similar to how automakers use such sensors to prevent crashes during adaptive cruise control operation and other semi-autonomous operations.

The i Gel is an intriguing vision for the future of protection, but it's still just a very rough concept. Illustrations show a small central controller connected electrically to the individual airbag actuators, but things like an appropriately light and durable airbag material and electro-actuated inflation system remain in research and development. In other words, there's a lot of work to do to turn this concept into a product that works as advertised and is comfortable to wear in real-life scenarios. Müller-Adam only had video and still renderings to show at Wearable Technologies and was there looking for venture capital and research partners to help bring the concept to life.

Given the proper backing, he believes that it will take about one to two years to ready a simple, low-speed i Gel protective system, similar in aim to ActiveProtective's system, for use by the elderly and other demographics at risk of falling. We're still at least three to four years away from the more technical high-speed motorcycle version. In addition to the elderly and motorcyclists, i Gel mentions equestrians, skiers, construction workers and soldiers as possible target demographics for the technology.

In covering wearable airbags built for skiers over the years, we've noticed two distinct segments. Outside the ropes of the resort, the avalanche airbag has grown in popularity. Avalanche airbags, like those from ABS, are typically worn inside backpacks and manually activated to help a skier caught in an avalanche remain on top of the snow instead of getting dragged down and trapped below the surface. On ski race courses, airbag systems like the Dainese D-Air Ski protect from the hard impacts of high-speed falls.

After studying the two segments of wearable ski airbags, we couldn't help but see the potential for them to converge. Imagine a comprehensive inflatable body suit that could protect the skier from avalanches by keeping him or her afloat atop the snow and also protect from hard falls by automatically inflating around the body. Though it's not designed specifically for the needs of skiers, the i Gel design does look like it could be adapted into that type of comprehensive inflatable ski suit.

Hopefully, Müller-Adam finds his financial and research partners and brings his concept to life. We'll keep an eye out for a working version at future Wearable Technologies Conferences, motorcycle shows and sports shows.

The two videos on the i Gel website illustrate how a simple i Gel system would protect an elderly person from a basic fall and how a more advanced version could protect from a several-story fall.

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