Can you travel at 70mph on skis and be safe? Some engineers say you can.
With 'Ski Sunday' back on UK TV screens for the next few weeks, even viewers who are not all that interested in skiing are likely to be enthralled by the sport’s new kid on the block - ski cross.Collisions and spectacular crashes are common as four skiers or snowboarders race side-by-side down a course with jumps and berms.
Competitors wear helmets and protective padding, but injuries are inevitable in such a fast and competitive sport. However, new pieces of wearable protection may soon make a big difference.
French start-up In&Motion and Swedish wearable protection specialist POC have collaborated to create a one-of-a-kind protective system, called the POC Spine VPD 2.0 Airbag Vest.
In&Motion’s engineers have developed the world’s first ski-specific smart airbag, which can detect an unavoidable fall and inflate in less than 100ms to protect sensitive areas of the body from high-speed impacts.
The system can be worn under a ski suit and has been approved by the International Ski Federation (FIS). It has already been adopted by a number of ski cross teams for use this season.
The airbag system consists of integrated sensors and uses a precise algorithm to distinguish a crash or fall from the normal forces associated with ski racing. In order to detect a loss of balance, the system keeps track of a rider’s movement by performing a thousand analyses per second. When a fall is detected, the airbags inflate before the skier hits the ground to provide protection for the neck, chest, spine, abdomen and hips.
The system is said to offer up to four times the absorption capacity of a standard back protector and also provides support to avoid or reduce trauma such as whiplash.
Oscar Huss, head of product development at POC, said: “For a number of years we have been exploring the potential of adaptive and smart protection, so it was natural for us to partner with In&Motion. We have invested a lot of time and effort exploring the possibilities of the airbag vest and we believe that the result marks a significant evolution in skier safety”.
Co-developer Pierre-Francois Tissot of In&Motion adds: “The equipment is ideal for sports like downhill skiing and ski cross as it is based on intelligent technology able to anticipate falls and is also able to protect selected zones of the body before impact.”
It was important to make sure that the vest didn’t impede movement or otherwise impact on a skier’s ability to compete effectively. Wind tunnel testing has shown that it has no effect on a skier’s aerodynamics.
The airbag operates through an electronic ‘In&Box’ in the back of the vest, which as well as operating the protection system is also able to analyse the data from a fall and send it to the user so they can better understand the reasons for their fall, as well as improving detection of a similar incident in the future.
Thousands of hours of work were involved in ensuring the accuracy of the algorithm, incorporating data from the injury surveillance system department of the FIS and the Oslo Sports Trauma Research Centre. The designers say that as more skiers use the vest they will get more feedback to help them refine and improve the accuracy of the algorithm. The box can also be linked to a smartphone to provide data on a skier’s speed, length and height of jumps etc, as well as tracking their course via GPS. Data is fed to the box via wireless sensors and an inertial measurement unit with a calculation frequency of 1000Hz, which are integrated into the vest.
Activation of the system is at the press of a button, with recharging required twice a week, and the battery is adapted to work in low temperatures. Once inflated, the system is reusable by replacing the inflator cartridge and it deflates quickly after impact, with optimum inflation pressure lasting for just a few seconds.
Anne Debiesse, In&Motion communications officer, says: “The designers also worked hard to create a system that is functional and easy to use. For now, the vest is only available to professional skiers, but it will be in the shops from July 2016 at a price of €1200, whilst the air cartridges will cost around €100. It’s expected that as the volume of sales increase, we will be able to lower the price.”
The vest complies with the specifications of the FIS competition equipment committee, which has given it a very positive response. Günter Hujara, the FIS technical expert, said: “The In&Motion airbag system fulfils all the technical specifications of a back protector. The obvious advantage is protection of the upper body and the hips. It is a very modern and advanced system which improves safety for competitors and [provides] an additional data information system.”
Likewise, Tommy Eliasson, the winter alpine director of the Swedish Ski Association, said that “the benefits are obvious for a high impact sport like ski cross. I can see numerous benefits in this project, not just in developing new protection gear, but also being able to track how injuries occur and why.”
The POC Spine VPD 2.0 has also been well received by athletes. Jonas Devouassoux, sixth at the Ski cross World Cup in 2015 said: “In our sport we always face the same constraints and risks: speed, jumps and falls. When we saw the first prototype, it really amazed all of us. The airbag system is another step in terms of protection. Every skier should wear one.”
Jean-Frédéric Chapuis, 2014 Sochi Olympic ski cross gold medallist, remarked that “in the future I think that this system will be used as a helmet is today.”
The ’trickle down’ effect has already been seen on other items of skier protection, notably helmets, which saw a massive rise in sales after Michael Schumacher’s skiing accident in December 2014.
Most high-end ski helmets now come with a multi-directional impact protection system (MIPS), in which the helmet and liner are separated by a low-friction layer. If the helmet is subjected to an angled impact, this layer lets the helmet slide relative to the head.
Accident statistics show that the most common accidents involve an oblique impact to the head, resulting in a rotation of the head and brain. The brain is more sensitive to oblique or rotational impacts than radial impacts, and the MIPS system helps to reduce these forces on the brain in impact.
The award-winning POC Receptor Backcountry MIPS helmet, which retails at £210, is a good example. It also features the company’s patented Ventilated Double Shell Anti-Penetration system (VDSAP), which is made up of two ventilated shells that are offset for maximum protection against penetration from sharp objects, while maintaining good air flow and ventilation. Additionally, it has an aramid penetration barrier (APB), by which a thin sheet of resistant aramid is moulded to the core. This maintains the relatively low weight of the helmet (550g) whilst greatly increasing protection levels.
Also common in better quality ski helmets is an expanded polypropylene (EPP) liner, which enables the helmet to withstand multiple impacts without permanently deforming, so a helmet incorporating EPP will continue to protect the wearer’s head even if they have several wipeouts whilst wearing it.
An example of this for the 2015-2016 ski season is the £220 Giro Range, which has a unique two-piece shell design where the semi-flexible EPP inner shell forms to the head shape of the wearer by expanding and contracting with the turn of a dial on the rear of the helmet. There is up to 6cm of adjustment, which effectively gives a personalised fit and guarantees against any loose areas or slipping and sliding, even on the bumpiest of runs. The Range also comes with MIPS technology.