Could the airbags Canadian skiers have been testing help improve Olympic safety?

The Eh Game

The Sochi Olympics have seen plenty of frightening injuries thus far in everything from skicross to freestyle skiing to snowboardcross to alpine skiing, but before too long, some of those injuries may be preventable. In particular, alpine skiing could get a lot safer thanks to the development of airbags for racers to wear on their backs, and Canadian skiers Jan Hudec (who claimed Canada's first alpine skiing medal in 20 years Sunday) , Manuel Osborne-Paradis and Erik Guay have been three of the four racers regularly testing those airbags in training runs on the World Cup circuit this season. The airbags, developed as a collaboration between Italian company Dainese and the International Ski Federation (FIS), haven't been tested in serious competition yet, so they weren't considered ready to be used in Sochi. However, FIS chief race director for men’s alpine skiing Gunter Hujara told AFP in late January that the system is close to competition-ready:

Gunther Hujara, FIS chief race director for men’s alpine skiing, said yesterday that the system was not quite ready for a mass roll-out despite the prototype having been used in training runs on the World Cup circuit this season.

“The D-Air System seems to be almost ready now, we did some last tests recently and we had a meeting with the coaches in Val Gardena where the latest prototype was presented,” Hujara said.

“We are very happy as it now seems to be the right time to present it to the world as something that might work in ski racing.”

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The system is built on similar work Dainese did to protect motocross competitors, but one of the biggest challenges was setting the airbags to deploy only when an athlete is crashing. That's obviously very different in motocross and ski racing, so Dainese had to do plenty of data collection and testing on top-level skiers to make these airbags functional on the slopes, and Hudec, Osborne-Paradis and Guay have proven crucial there (along with Italian Werner Heel and some other top World Cup competitors). From Maria Pia Beltran of the International Sports Press Association, here's a story on how these airbags work, how they've been improved over three years of work and how they could eventually apply to much more than just alpine skiing:

As Dainese and FIS explain, D-air®Ski is an airbag protective system for use in competitive Alpine skiing. The system can deployed in 100 milliseconds from the start of an accident (in the most violent accidents), and covers the chest, shoulders, collar bones and cervical vertebrae and can absorb up to 61% of the force of impact.

"This system has been built with regards to Alpine Ski,” explains Vittorio Cafaggi, Strategic Development Manager of Dainese, “but it will be possible to save the hardware of the system and start feasibility studies for other disciplines as well.” ...

The deployment algorithm is what decides whether or not to deploy the D-air® based on data supplied by sensors. "Actually it means that this system can be applied just to those sports in which there is a clear distinction between what is "normal" and what is an "accident,” Cafaggi goes on. “In snowboard, you have rotations, high jumps and vertical landings as normal features of competition, even in the sky, but a jump and impact are completely different, and now recognizable.”

The sensors are the brain of the system; its designers have therefore focused much of their attention on it, using data obtained from various testing sessions that to date number 238 descents and 700 minutes of data. This data has enabled engineers to calibrate a new algorithm that better understands when to deploy and when not to. One significant improvement lies in the fact that the algorithm now understands when the skier is jumping and thus avoids any risk of misinterpreting the landing after a jump as an accident.

While the sensors and algorithms are the key part of the airbag, and the toughest to get right, other improvements have been made too:

The analysis of trauma injury data from FIS-ISS studies has led to the shape of the actual D-air®Ski bag being modified so that it now covers the chest, shoulders, collar bones and cervical vertebrae. Back protectors which are by now used by all competitors in speed disciplines, have frequently proven themselves to be efficient and this has allowed the air to be “shifted” from the back to the chest. This protects more of the body in the event of a fall but has not meant any increase in weight or size of the system. The new shape of the bag is also the result of numerous comfort and ergonomic tests performed on the skiers involved in the project.

The number one rule for any protective device is that it must not be the cause of an injury. The inherent safety of the D-air®Ski was first tested using static deployment tests aimed at checking that rapid inflation of the bag did not cause any form of recoil against the skier's body. These were followed by dynamic tests which consisted of unexpectedly deploying the system during a descent to check that inflating the airbag did not cause the skier to lose control. The exclusive design ensured that all the tests were successful by proving the bags were able to cope with the high inflation pressures, and that they could provide optimum protection even when the thickness of the inflated bag is just 5 centimetres. This is a key factor as regards to inherent safety, as the greater the thickness, the greater the risk of restricting a skier's freedom of movement.

The other key factor regarding inherent safety is associated with the positioning of the system components, especially the gas generators, which, in the event of a fall must not cause injury. Impact tests were carried out using special machines and the results leads to the most obvious difference between the prototype and the current D-air®Ski i.e. the positioning of the pack on the back. Laboratory tests have shown that this solution is best able to minimise the forces transmitted to the skier's body thanks to the fact that the rigid components are "buried" inside a specific structure which in turn sits on the back protector. This solution has been widely tested in MotoGp, where it has been in use since 2009 during which, in the three separate classes, 333 riders protected by the D-air®Racing system have fallen. None of them suffered injury in the protected areas.

While all that's impressive, the key question is just how far away this technology is from regular use in competition. After all, it's not much good to have a great-sounding system that's never used in a race. According to Hujara, though, the toughest part (figuring out the crash algorithm) is largely done, and these airbags could show up in races sooner rather than later:

“The most difficult thing was defining the algorithm and finding the exact moment when an athlete is no longer in control and is no longer able to control the situation,” Hujara said.

“We installed the data collecting system in our training runs and at the end this was very helpful as we got a clearer idea of what really happens during an alpine ski racing run.”

"We’re quite sure that we are close to the moment when we can allow to use it during competition."

That could be very good news for alpine skiers, but it might eventually benefit freestyle skiers and snowboarders as well if algorithms can be figured out for those sports. These airbags are not a panacea, of course; they won't protect against leg or knee injuries, which are incredibly common on the slopes, and they may not even completely stop all neck and back injuries. After all, people still suffer neck and back injuries in car crashes despite airbag technology; airbags can't stop everything. They can certainly help to prevent or dramatically reduce the severity of many injuries, though, and these reports suggest that the implementation of airbags on the slopes may not be far away, especially in high-level alpine skiing. If and when airbags are eventually brought in, the efforts Canadian skiers went to to help test them should be remembered.

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