24 February 2010—The most extreme winter athletes in the world are in Vancouver this week, at the Winter Olympics. But when in less-controlled conditions, they might want this tool: the air bag for avalanches, now available in wireless.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation, in Stuttgart, Germany, teamed up with a sporting goods manufacturer, ABS Peter Aschauer, to develop a wireless, remotely triggered backpack air-bag system for high-level backcountry skiers and snowboarders keen on flying down mountainsides through deep virgin snow.
Air-bag systems for avalanches have been on the market in one form or another since the late 1980s. They work by setting off a pressurized cartridge, which in turn inflates two PVC air bags in two and a half seconds with about 170 liters of a gas. From there the avalanche air bag acts almost as a flotation device, working to prevent the skier or snowboarder from being sucked under and covered by the rush of falling snow. Fraunhofer team leader Bernhard Budaker says the air bags are meant to be especially effective against "slab" avalanches, which involve big plates of cohesive, strong snow sitting over looser layers of snow that break up into smaller pieces as the avalanche rushes down the mountainside. Slab avalanches account for about 75 percent of avalanche fatalities and are often triggered by their victims themselves.
Where Peter Aschauer and the Fraunhofer team have pushed the technology further is the integration of a wireless networking system in the trigger handle that can trigger other packs. Each pack wearer can act as a routing relay station, with the trigger handle receiving and passing along the wireless 868- and 915-megahertz signals with a range of up to 450 meters. With a little tinkering, the range can be extended, says Budaker.
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The network allows a group of mountaineers to set different options for setting off the air bags: A group leader or nearby stationary partner can be designated the system "master," in charge of remotely setting off any air bag discharge over the wireless channels. Or a more decentralized network can be set up, where any group member can set off another member's air bag. The system's sticker price of US $1300 should be enough to deter any snow-borne practical jokers.
The air-bag system went on sale in December and is ready to hit the steep slopes from Chamonix to the Canadian Rockies. "Many of the newer survival tools—like these flotation devices—need to be activated by the user immediately on sensing the start of an avalanche," says Tanja Lauton, a spokeswoman for the Peter Aschauer group. "Not everyone is able to activate the system in case of an emergency." A person might not be aware of the avalanche or might be physically unable to reach the trigger.
About the Author
Michael Dumiak is a freelance journalist based in Berlin who writes about technology and society. In November 2009 he interviewed the inventor of the Air Piano.