We've been following the progression of the ski airbag from Italian company Dainese for over a year. It turns out Dainese will have some competition from its neighbors in France. Helite, a company that specializes in equestrian airbag vests, is developing its own protective skiing airbag.
While Helite does not specialize in other ski gear or clothing, it is adapting the airbag systems from its equestrian and motorcycle designs to ski racing.
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Not to be confused with the growing number of avalanche airbags, Helite's system is being developed for use with hard, stable snow and fast speeds – so it's designed to protect racers from injuries during falls. Helite says that the additional protection should inspire more confidence in racers, which is important in a sport that hinges on fractions of a second.
In contrast to its equestrian version, which uses a mechanical activation mechanism that pulls into action when the rider falls off the horse, the ski design will work electronically. A series of accelerometers and sensors will detect when the skier is falling, kicking the inflation mechanism into action. A CO2 canister will then fill up the air bags, covering the skier in a thick, protective vest within about 100 milliseconds.
Given Helite's competitive focus, R&D isn't being conducted in the backcountry with big-name ski-film stars but in conjunction with the French national skicross team. The company is working with the team in testing, collecting data and improving the design. Like Dainese, Helite hopes to have its ski airbag system ready by the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Helite displayed a prototype of its ski airbag at the ISPO Munich show earlier this month. It envisions the system being customizable, allowing the consumer to choose different configurations. The primary airbag inflates around the chest, neck and back, but additional airbags can be used to protect the waist, hips, etc.
Helite says that the system it is working on is strictly for competition. However, the company works with a variety of manufacturing partners, so should the airbag prove successful, perhaps someone will pursue different sectors of the sport (e.g. big mountain skiing, freestyle, etc.). An airbag that can protect from both falls and avalanche drownings seems like a product that could be particularly useful for backcountry skiing on big, dangerous terrain.
While at the ISPO show, I got the chance to try out the Helite airbag system. Since the ski system isn't ready for primetime, I buckled into the equestrian vest and let them pull the activation cord. Within well under a second, the inflated vest was clamping down on my torso like a hungry boa constrictor. The speed of activation, firmness of the inflated vest and close-to-body nature of the design definitely felt sufficient to prevent some bruises and breaks (though standing still on a show floor isn't exactly scientific research). You can see a short clip of that experience below. The second video is a look at how the ski system will operate on the mountain.