The new Black Diamond JetForce avalanche airbag technology—which has revolutionized the product field by relying on a fan to inflate the bag instead of a compressed gas—got its start with a computer and a trash bag.
Nathan Kuder, the category director for the JetForce project, says it all came about four years ago. He, along with a team of designers from Black Diamond, made the decision to build an airbag, but they wanted to make sure theirs overcame all the existing problems facing the current airbags on the market. Most importantly, they wanted to stay away from compressed gas canisters because canisters are hard to travel with, can only be deployed once without a refill, and sometimes misfire or don't work at all.
"We just started brainstorming about different solutions, the sky was the limit," Kuder says. "We started exploring new ways to get volume into a bag immediately, repeatedly, and safely."
Anything was fair game. The team looked at expanding foam, mechanical springs, and an exoskeleton frame. None of these options worked exactly right, until one team member had one of those pure light bulb moments. On a whim, they decided to attach a leaf-and-lawn trash bag to a desktop computer fan to see how fast it would fill.
"After it filled pretty fast we realized we were onto something," Kuder says.
From there the team started playing with more powerful fans and motors to see just how fast they could pump air, and whether they could realistically fill an avalanche bag in three seconds, which is the industry norm.
For one experiment they went out and bought a model airplane motor and propeller and had Kuder hold it while sitting in an office chair. The unit pumped so much air that it sent Kuder into an uncomfortable spin and proved they were going to be in range, even with off-the-shelf gear.
"It was pumping air fast enough that I wanted to stop," Kuder says.
Serendipitously, while Kuder and his crew were tinkering with fans and building a prototype bag, Black Diamond was in the process of acquiring PIEPS, the well-known avalanche beacon company. With the deal signed and PIEPS under the same parent company, Kuder and his team presented their designs to the PIEP engineers. The engineers had years of experience working with the kind of software and batteries the airbag would need to spin a fan and inflate properly, so it seemed like a good idea to get their input. Kuder says the PIEPS engineers liked the overall concept but suggested the newly combined team start from scratch and build a new prototype.
“We all agreed on the goal of the end product, but other than that, the PIEPS team said, ‘Let’s take it back to the wood and optimize,'” Kuder says.
The Black Diamond team still led the overall project, but Kuder says PIEPS took over designing all the electronic components. Working together, it took about six months to arrive at a prototype similar to the airbags that will hit the market in the fall.
“To be honest, we couldn’t have asked for a better windfall," Kuder says. "Without PIEPS we would have probably ended up with a really excellent proof of concept, but I’m not sure we would have been commercial, certainly not for fall '14. We would have had to spend a lot of extra time and money if it hadn’t been for PIEPS.”
To make sure they knew exactly how effective the bag would be in a slide, they strapped it to a dummy and then placed it within slide paths at Snowbasin Resort in Utah. Ski patrollers from the resort set off the slides from above and the Black Diamond team deployed the bag remotely (parts of the test can be seen in the video below).
"This was part of Snowbasin's control work anyway, so it was a great way for us to evaluate the bag," Kuder says.
After many months of testing in the snow, and a little more tinkering with the design, the team finally arrived at a final product and was ready to launch it at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City last month. The trade show is the most important of its kind in the United States and is attended by all the major outdoor companies that use it to roll out next season's gear to buyers and journalists.
The JetForce technology already had attention before going into the show because of some initial write-ups on industry gear blogs. By the end of the three-day event, the system had taken home all the top awards given out by blogs and magazines and "JetForce" had become the buzzword of the show. Every time Kuder or anyone from his team ran a demo for the crowd, it was standing room only.
"It's all been pretty amazing," Kuder said in a phone interview days after the show. "We started this process by listening to the people who had been using airbags for the longest and I think we've really come up with game changing technology. There was a lot of work involved, but I don't think there are many companies out there that are this committed to snow safety and capable of biting off this much and making it work. I'm just really glad to be part of the team and we're excited to see how this technology will change things going forward."
Black Diamond will sell three sizes of the JetForce pack this fall; 11L, 28L, and 40L. PIEPS will have 24L and 34L packs that use the JetForce technology and POC will have its own branded version of the 11L pack. The packs will range from $1,000 to $1,200 in price.
In terms of breakthroughs, the decision to go with a fan and a battery instead of compressed gas allows JetForce packs to do several important things that meet Black Diamond's original goal of optimizing the airbag design.
• Because JetForce packs rely on batteries there's no need to buy a new gas canister or track down a scuba shop to get a resupply of air. Just plug the battery into the wall and in four hours it's fully charged.
• With rechargeable batteries, users have the option of practicing with JetForce packs before they go out. Nowadays people are often hesitant to practice with gas canisters because refilling them is expensive and time consuming.
• Unlike current airbags, which are inconvenient to travel with because airline restrictions prevent canisters from being brought on board any aircraft, JetForce packs can be carried on the plane.
• JetForce packs are more reliable because the electronic system in the pack runs a self-diagnosis every time it's turned on so users can be sure their bag will fire.
• With a fan, there's an infinite supply of air. This means JetForce packs can recover from a small tear and still work effectively. With a canister, a tear deflates the bag.
• Unlike airbags that use canisters, JetForce packs can self-deflate by spinning the fan in reverse. This happens automatically at the three-minute mark, which creates the potential for a 200L air pocket under the snow if the user is buried.
• And finally, JetForce packs allow for multiple deployments. The lithium ion battery will fire up to four times at 0°C (32°F), and one or two times at -30° C (-22°F). If users are skiing a particularly risky line, they can deploy the bag before they start down and don't have to worry about the bag not working later in the day.
From Black Diamond headquarters, here’s a look at the team developing and testing the prototype for the new JetForce Avalanche Airbag: