Wearable airbags for ski racing move toward the start gate

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Dainese's D-air Ski garment relies on micro-filaments to help it expand during deployment(Credit: Dainese)

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We've been watching the wearable ski-racing airbag develop over the past several years, and while the technology has come to fruition, it has yet to really catch on in the sport it was designed for. If the key is to offer more options, we take another step forward with the all-new Spine VPD 2.0 Airbag Vest from Swedish safety accessories manufacturer POC and French startup In&Motion. For its part, Dainese, designer of the first wearable airbag, will get its tech on the back of World Cup racers this season.

Different from the avalanche airbag, a device meant to keep an avalanche victim on top of the snow, the ski-racing airbag's job is to provide impact protection during high-speed crashes. With the blessing of the International Ski Federation (FIS), Dainese developed the first such airbag and showed it in 2014.

High-level athletes are particular creatures, though. While an auto-inflate airbag has the potential to ward off devastating injuries, ski racers have been loath to wear them. According to a New York Times article this past February, racers were concerned with the detrimental effects that wearing the airbag might have on their on-snow performances.

An FIS mandate requiring airbags could alleviate racers' concerns by keeping the playing field level – if everyone wears one, then everyone experiences the same effects, positive and negative. But, according to that same Times article, the FIS was interested in having more than a single wearable airbag option available to racers before considering such a mandate.

It might not be the tipping point to a mandate, but there will be at least one additional airbag option in Winter 2015/16. The new Spine VPD 2.0 Airbag Vest has been approved by the FIS for use in both alpine and ski cross. Like Dianese's D-air Ski, the Spine uses a series of integrated sensors to detect crash-level falls, relying on an algorithm to distinguish those falls from normal racing forces. It performs 1,000 analyses per second and inflates the airbag within 100 milliseconds should it detect a crash.

Once inflated, POC/In&Motion's airbag cushions the neck, chest, spine, abdomen and hips. The airbag design is a bit different from Dianese's – most notably in extending protection down to the hips with those tentacle-like side tubes – but the goal is the same: put some cushion between the tumbling skier and the hard ground he or she is speeding over. POC says that the airbag offers four times better absorption capacity than standard back protectors.

POC has integrated In&Motion's system into a lightweight vest designed to be worn under the skier's race suit. Like Dianese, it points to wind tunnel testing in concluding that the vest has no aerodynamic impact on the skier.

Interesting side note – while Italy's Dianese relied on Ferrari's wind tunnel for testing, Sweden's POC has a working partnership with Volvo, which includes access to its wind tunnel.

POC says that several alpine and ski cross racers will wear its vest this season, including Canadian ski cross racer and POC team member Dave Duncan. Interestingly, the company plans to sell a consumer version through select retailers beginning in Northern Hemisphere Fall 2016. While the technology certainly seems beneficial to racer safety, its usefulness for regular skiers, who may fall many times at lower, non-threatening speeds, is more dubious.

Perhaps a reaction to POC's announcement last week, Dainese sent out its own press release this week announcing that its D-air Ski airbag will be used in World Cup racing by Austrian, Italian, Canadian and American team members. It is now quoting an airbag deployment time of 25 milliseconds, quicker than the 100 milliseconds it gave at launch time last year.

It should prove a very interesting winter for ski racing airbag technology, and we look forward to seeing which athletes use the airbags, how they place and if the technology comes into play on the snow.

Sources: POC, NY Times


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