Personal Airbags Offer Protective Cushion

Personal airbags are the latest advance in safety.

Vehicle airbags save over 2,000 lives every year in the United States. But as long as the airbag remains tethered to the car, this revolution in safety only works with a turn of the ignition

Quite simply, the airbag can do more. Wearable technology is unleashing its potential to protect people in several facets of their lives – long after they lock their car doors. The personal airbag is ready to deploy.

Head Smart

An estimated 40% of the U.S. adult population wears a helmet when bike riding – which means 60% don’t. Those numbers may seem dire, but consider that in Japan, where bikes are as prevalent as rice dishes, only 1% of adults don a protective lid.

Why don’t more people wear helmets? According to Fredrik Carling, CEO of Swedish company Hövding, it’s because bike helmets have an image problem. They’re bulky and uncomfortable, he says, or simply deemed not stylish or uncool. “People understand it makes sense to protect their head while cycling,” Carling says, “but they still won’t [wear] it.”

The Hövding seeks to change all that. The device is an airbag collar designed to be worn by cyclists. “You don’t have to wear it on your head,” Carling says. “You don’t have to worry about how your hair looks after you’ve taken it off. You’re not stuck with a closed-in feeling like a traditional helmet would give you. It easily folds up and can be put in your bag.”

“It’s a product that delivers way beyond the protection that is required of a helmet.”

Fredrik Carling, Hövding

But beyond the style appeal, the Hövding offers tantalizing safety benefits. The brainchild of two Swedish graduate students a decade ago, the Hövding features sensors that take readings 200 times per second. Embedded in the device is an algorithm that was built by re-enacting thousands of bike accidents. By reading data and movement, the collar can differentiate between normal motion and a serious fall. When it detects an accident, a cold gas inflator deploys a nylon hood in 100 milliseconds that covers the neck and entirety of the head.

“It’s a product that delivers way beyond the protection that is required of a helmet,” says Carling, noting that the shock absorption of the Hövding is three times better than traditional helmets.

Earlier this year, Hövding released the next-generation version of the device – increasing the comfort and lessening the weight while refining some of the design details. Users simply flip a switch on the collar to turn it on; the device charges through a computer or electrical outlet, and has an average usage time of 10 hours before it must be recharged.

Over 4,000 Hövdings have been sold in Sweden, with additional devices sold in Germany, the United Kingdom and, just recently, Japan. Carling says the company has no plans yet to bring the device (which retails for 299 euros) to the U.S., though half of the company’s weekly 40-50 requests for the product come from across the ocean. And considering that over 20% of the U.S. population 16 and older (tens of millions of people) rides a bike, those are numbers that simply can’t be ignored. Carling won’t dismiss the possibility in the future. “We can’t be blind to the fact that it’s a unique product,” he says. “The same product does not exist anywhere else in the world. However, cyclists do exist all over the world.”

In the Air

The best alpine skiers in the world travail the ski slopes at speeds over 90 mph. At those speeds, the difference between a gold medal time and a catastrophic injury is as thin as a ski edge. One 2010 paper found that racers have nearly a 30% chance of being injured during a season, most often as the result of crashes.

For the International Ski Federation (FIS), the governing body of alpine skiing, it has been paramount to add another layer of safety. Or any layer, for that matter, considering Olympic athletes have little beyond a protective helmet. The organization has worked closely with Dainese, an Italian manufacturer of airbags for motorcycle racers, to bring its airbag suit technology to the world of skiing. “The efforts by Dainese have been welcomed and are truly outstanding,” says Sasha Rearick, the head coach of the U.S. men’s alpine ski team.

The process to adapt the system from motorcycle racing has been far from easy. Dainese spent four years collecting data from training runs to carefully calibrate the algorithm which governs the air bag. The company had to take into account specific actions in the sport, such as the vibration of the skis or ensuring the airbag wouldn’t deploy after the skier lands from a jump. “Without a crash, there is no risk of activation,” says Marco Pastore, the sponsoring manager at Dainese who oversaw the project.

Originally targeted for use by the Sochi Olympics in February 2014, the D-air Ski system was delayed for improvements in comfort and range of motion. It was finally approved for racing this previous January, a month before the World Championships. No skiers opted to use it in competition this season – reluctance owed in part to the mid-season launch. While some teams had tested the system previously, Rearick says the U.S. skiers had not had a chance to train with the current iteration of the system. Also, they wanted more time to customize the fit of the system.

Overall, say the principals, the feedback regarding the airbag suit has been positive. In testing, the backpack has proven to be neither an advantage nor disadvantage, even as it adds a relatively small amount of weight. (over half a pound). “It’s not a question of it being way too big or heavy, not at all,” says Rearick. “It just feels different.”

“As long as some big teams and big stars are starting to use the D-air Ski, I think all the rest will come. ”

Markus Waldner, International Ski Federation

Rearick anticipates some American skiers will use the device after training with it this summer and fall. Skiers from other countries will likely use it for the upcoming season as well. “As long as some big teams and big stars are starting to use it, I think all the rest will come and start to use it for sure,” says FIS men’s World Cup director Markus Waldner. “It just takes some time, because it’s quite a conservative, traditional mentality in alpine skiing.”

To the Future

The results with this early airbag technology have been encouraging, and manufacturers recognize there is still room to grow. The current D-air Ski, for example, only protects the shoulders and torso, which will help ailments like separated shoulders and broken ribs. But the majority of skiing injuries (over 80%) occur to the lower body. “We already have some ideas of how to protect the knees, which are the biggest problem for the skiers,” says Pastore, who says Dainese wants to see how the current D-air Ski fares next season before rolling out additional improvements. “That will be the next step.”

Likewise, Carling says his company is exploring means of interconnectivity – interfacing with a smartphone, or automatically having the device call 911 in case of an accident. “It’s something that we’re only starting to look at now once we’ve been able to meet the basic function of the product,” he says.

Olympic skiers are receiving added protection with the D-air Ski system from Dainese. This wearable airbag inflates to protect the shoulders and torso when a skier crashes.

In addition, both consumers and developers are teasing out the possibilities for alternative uses of airbag technology. Carling recounts stories of the Hövding being worn by epileptics to shield them in a fall. Likewise, multiple companies are developing inflatable airbag belts to protect the elderly in a similar manner (see sidebar).

Pastore sees the potential to migrate Dainese’s airbag technology into other sports, though he cautions it will take time and money to gather sport-specific data to make sure it operates properly. “With this system,” he says, “you can protect anybody in most of the dynamic sports.”

“We already have some ideas of how to protect the knees, which are the biggest problem for the skiers.”

Marco Pastore, Dainese

After the Fall

The Center for Disease Control says that falls of adults 65 and older cost lead to $34 billion in direct medical costs. To prevent those injuries and save billions in health-care costs, companies are developing personal airbags to be worn by the elderly. Their potential demonstrates that wearable airbags aren’t just for athletes and the active, but can have a tremendous impact on everyday activities.

ActiveProtective started as an idea from Dr. Robert F. Buckman, a former professor of surgery at Temple University and trauma center director. The Allentown, Pennsylvania-based company is developing a wearable belt that inflates when a person falls, protecting the midsection and upper legs and preventing hip fractures, one of the most serious results of elderly falls (at least 258,000 hospital admissions annually). The company has been testing the device with a goal of having it ready for commercialization by the end of 2016. “I can’t make any claims,” CEO Drew Lakatos told FreeEnterprise.com. “But if you’re wearing our device, we’re attenuating impact force greater than any other device on the market, which should eliminate the vast majority of hip fractures.”

ActiveProtective is not the only company to create such a device. Netherlands-based Wolk Company has also developed a similar airbag belt designed to help the elderly. The company has said the device won’t be available for purchase until 2016.

C.J. Mittica is the editor of Wearables. Contact him at cmittica@asicentral.com and follow him on Twitter at @CJ_Wearables.