Trunk In The Trunk

JetForce Airbag Changes The Game

Black Diamond reinvents the avalanche airbag with new technology

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.

black-diamond-jetforce-airbag-sma

“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).

Product testing. PHOTO: Black Diamond

Product testing. PHOTO: Black Diamond

“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.

The trigger lights up so users can know how much battery power is left. PHOTO: Black Diamond.

Each time you turn the pack on, it runs a self-diagnosis, so users can be sure the bag will fire. PHOTO: Black Diamond.

“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:

Add a comment

  • Matt Barr

    This is an amazing advancement in back country safety. Unfortunately the price still makes it too expensive for most people I know that are interested in back country exploring. The most important advance in this technology will come when someone can offer a flotation pack for a third of this cost. They should be $350 -$400 at the very most.

    • Nathan Ballard

      Check eBay for a first generation Float30. I’ve worn one for years, they work great, and you can probably grab a slightly used on for $300.

      Cheers.

  • Shaun

    Great work Black Diamond!

  • Launchpad McQuack

    Cool bag, but a couple of your facts are wrong – You can travel with canisters on airlines, just not with full canisters, and it is not expensive or time consuming to refill a canister. most scuba shops can do it in less than 10 minutes – Go to Salty Peaks in SLC and they’ll do it on the spot for you for 10 bucks – can’t beat that.

    • bw

      Pretty sure free beats a $10 refill. Not many mountain towns are known for having scuba shops. Also tough to refill a canister on a mulit-day hut trip or something similar. Plugging this pack in like you do a cell phone at your house also beats having to go to said scuba shop (provided there is one even remotely close by).

      • 4realz

        Yeah, and how about practice. Practice? We talkin bout Practice? Yes, because you should be familiar with how equipment works, esp. if you think your life might depend on it. Plus to do multiple trainings/tests would require multiple canisters. Not just 10 + 10 + 10. You can fire jetforce models to test before you head out in the backcountry. Way way way better.

      • Chris

        If Salty’s is charging $10, they’re ripping you off. My local dive shop does it for $3, and second I know of does it for $2.25. I also know of a ski shop and a snowmobile dealer that do it for free. And if you needed one of these multiple times on a multi-day trip, I seriously question your terrain selection skills.

        That being said, its cool to see a new way to address the problem. If BD’s pack was weight and/or price competitive with the lightest/least expensive models, I’d be really excited.

      • blah

        so then you have electricity on these hut trips then? that’s fancy

  • skeptik

    If this were true, then all electronics would always work: “Each time you turn the pack on, it runs a self-diagnosis, so users can be sure the bag will fire.” Ever had a problem with your computer?

    Think physics. The fan has a limit of how much pressure it can create in the bag; once the load from snow exceeds that, the bag has a big hole to allow the air to be pressed out of the bag, thereby voiding the value of the bag. To be able to make a valid determination if this is an effective answer, one needs to know the pressure of the bag under normal conditions (not ideal conditions), then use weight of typical compressed avalanche snow along with the equation of momentum (P=mv) to see if the avalanche math wins or the bag’s pressure does.

    • bw

      Beacons are electronics and you trust them in the backcountry.

      • Shredthegnarpow

        Beacons are body finders…nothing else.

        • bw

          Tell that to the many people who’ve been saved using them.

    • the baysht

      Airbags work using the principle of inverse granularity. Avalanche debris consists of densely packed balls of snow of various sizes. The increased surface area of the airbag causes the airbag to stay near the top, as the lesser sized balls of snow go underneath you. Of course, an airbag can only withstand a certain amount of pressure, but that’s not the main principle behind which it works.

      But I really want to know how the batteries really perform in cold weather…

    • jakeniece

      I would bet it has a check valve. But inflation if already under the surface could be an issue, not just from the snow pressure but a lack of supply air as well. I like that there is R&D happening though.

  • J Burton

    What’s cool regardless of anyone’s opinion of the product is that inovation is in progress. Well done BD.

  • Meself

    Does it include a avalung?? That would be dope!

  • Alex

    Great innovative product. I also have questions… such as the batteries’ performance under very cold weather, and, as “skeptik” mentionned, how does the fan perform against the pressures of tumbling snow within an avalanche?

  • http://freshymap.com/ FreshyMap

    It’s great to see progress in this area of snow safety. I’m curious though where the fan gets air to inflate the bag with once it’s been buried?

    • Nathan Ballard

      The bag fills BEFORE you get buried preventing you from getting buried at all. If it filled after you were buried, the entire purpose would be defeated.

      • http://freshymap.com/ FreshyMap

        Hey Nathan, you’re a huge dick! :)

        One of the airbag’s features is that, especially if punctured, it continues to inflate itself. Thanks for confusing the situation, though.

    • Eric M

      FreshyMap, you bring up a good point! As Nate says, you do need to inflate the airbag before getting buried.
      We’re working on some new systems that address your concern. Our new hydrogen airbag is currently in alpha testing, but the aim is to be able to ignite the hydrogen in the airbags and blast your way out if you do become buried. Initially we tried helium, hoping to be able to lift the victim airborn completely clear of the avalanche, but so far have been unable to build a light enough cannister to hold the volume of gas required.

      Eric Meyer
      Darwin Airbag Systems

      • Nathan Ballard

        LMFAO…Ironically enough I’ve already nominated FreshyMap for a Skiing Darwin Award. I’m not sure how you can beat him!

  • Jaded

    “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.”
    Did someone actually say this? I’d like to hear more of their exciting new snow safety theories.

    • Nathan Ballard

      You beat me to it. Morons wrote this…I wonder if they’ve ever been in the backcountry.

      • Eric M

        This is additionally a good speed control technique that we recommend using with our airbags. We build them big enough that anyone can straightline after deployment!

        Eric Meyer
        Darwin Airbag Systems

  • Dirtbag skier

    I love this technology. I have been a backcountry skier for over 20 years now. I luckily(knock on wood) have never been buried in an avalanche. I always wear my beacon and travel with my shovel and probe. I always make sure those I’m with do too. My only question is why can’t this be made affordable for every backcountry skier? I don’t have an extra $1000-$1200 laying around. That is some major dough for a dirt bag skier trying to scrape by. I know the next question is “Isn’t your life worth it?” and my response would be EVERY life is worth it not just the rich people with disposable income. So How about it Black Diamond? You gonna lower the price dramaticly in the next few years so you can help make ALL skiers safer?

    • Lost Sheep

      Like most things, the rich people will be the early adopters and the price will come down as costs are amoritized. But hey, same as with life saving drugs, these people are in business and isn’t your life worth it?

  • Nathan Ballard

    “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.”

    This is quite possibly the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever seen written into the review of a piece of safety gear. Inviting people to ski sketch lines just because they have an airbag is a really bad idea.

  • Will

    Is this any lighter then packs with compressed air cylinders?

  • John G Warner

    “The baysht” has it right. It is all about inverse granularity. I am one of those “rich” guys that is going to get one of the 40 L bags, because I am sick and tired of the mental gymnastics of transporting canisters, shipping canisters, and or filling canisters. Black Diamond ought to be congratulated for this R&D.

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