Science-- there's something for everyone

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Airbags for skiers

Bernhard Budaker of the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA and his team have developed a remotely controlled airbag system for skiers.

About 25 skiers are killed in the US each year by avalanches. An equal number are killed in Switzerland, and other countries, including seven killed over the past week. Often, people are not killed by the immediate impact, but rather as a consequence of being buried in snow. They may suffocate as carbon dioxide levels build up around them, or they may succumb to hypothermia.

A variety of survival equipment has been tried over the years, including beacons, probes, shovels, a device called an ‘Avalung’ (designed to delay suffocation until help can arrive), and yes, airbags.

Avalanche airbags are not a new idea, having been in use for several decades. They give a skier buoyancy to help him stay above the snow during an avalanche. However, in the past, the wearer has had to activate them himself. This means that if a skier is caught off guard, he might not have time to activate his airbags. In contrast, the new airbag is designed to be remotely activated by other members of a ski party or by ski instructors. The engineers say that the old airbags can be retrofitted with the new activation system.

The reason I like this story isn't only because it may save lives. The truth is that I can’t help envisioning skiers being remotely triggered at inopportune moments by their buddies. OK, I’m the bad guy.

Avalanche airbag system with visible airbags, taken by Nolispanmo, 2/21/2009.