In Nathan’s words: “Production weight will probably be about 7 pounds 4 ounces — the lighter or at least average side of the equation for airbag backpacks in the 30 liter range. While weight is important, our primary goal with this product is to make it as safe as possible. To that end, some of this Jetforce version could be considered over-engineered and our first retail packs will probably be heavier than refined versions as the product progresses. One example of this is how we run the fan, with more air (and thus more battery power) than necessary to compensate for tears in the airbag fabric. We did consider a pressure sensor inside the bag that would control inflation. The pack doesn’t include that for now, though it could in the future. If you’re curious about where the backpack design came from (this one is the 28 liter Halo), it evolved from our Anthem model. All our airbag packs include the BD ReActiv suspension system, which allows the pack to adjust to your body movements and carry more easily.”
Black Diamond’s “Jetforce Technology” airbag backpacks inflate in 3 seconds, with ambient air sourced from a battery and fan. The control firmware can be programmed to do just about anything. Pulse the fan, run in reverse, and so on. This was my second time going up close and personal with Jetforce, and I remain convinced that the system is viable and possibly the future in avalanche airbag technology. In other words, I’m not going to be surprised if compressed gas airbags are off the market within 24 months.
I asked Nathan about using UHMW (i.e., Dyneema) fabric for the bag, and how that would influence the necessity of battery power to compensate for tears. He said that indeed a “tear proof” airbag would be desirable, but adds quite a bit of cost so it was left out of the project for now. Nathan did allude to the fact that given various improvements, the battery could indeed be lighter — and that a Dyneema bag would be lighter as well, perhaps resulting in a significantly lighter backpack. We can dream, can we not?
– Easy air travel, little to no restrictions on the batteries as they’re no different than laptop batteries.
– As many practice deployments as you desire, battery good for one to six full inflations (depends on temperature and age), recharge it for more.
– NO hassle with compressed gas cylinders. No pumping, no exchanging, no nothing.
– With stock battery, may be slightly lighter in weight than compressed gas offerings, with smaller battery will be significantly lighter.
– Automatic deflation cycle can possibly create airspace around head in the event of burial.
– Specific to BD design, airbag stuff-stows loosely after use, pack it in minutes, no folding or other tangled origami.
– Fan is set to cycle on periodically during 3 minute inflation period per CE standards, this can overcome up to 7 inch tear in the fabric.
The disadvantages, in our opinion:
– Battery power significantly reduced when temperatures drop to single digits.
– Limited pack styles, appears to be mostly available in panel loaders.
– Lithium battery could be dangerous if damaged.
– Lithium battery deteriorates with age.
– Possible obstruction of air intakes.
– Still expensive.
– New technology that will doubtless undergo numerous improvements; do you want to be an early adopter?
One of the most valid concerns I’ve heard about Jetforce technology is clogging of the air intakes; unlike compressed gas based airbag, Jetforce depends on 100% ambient air. Fact of the matter is that snow contains a lot of available air — especially when falling in an avalanche and even after the avalanche stops. That’s why Avalungs function. More, even compressed gas airbags depend on a certain amount of ambient air they suck in through their venturi valve (essentially, they’re ‘powered’ by compressed gas instead of electricity). Thus, if you’re concerned about clogging of the Jetforce intake, you might want to ask why that’s not a concern with compressed gas nor with your Avalung. Granted, even if the compressed gas venturi is clogged the airbag will still inflate to some degree, but flotation will be compromised. In either case, good engineering and design should be able to prevent clogging of any snow/air system in all but the most dire circumstances.
I asked Nathan, “Why no Avalung?” “To avoid confusion,” he responded. “As in, ‘do I concentrate on getting this thing in my mouth, or pulling the airbag trigger?’ We didn’t want to appear to be creating some sort of ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of avalanche safety. The Avalung sling is available if you do want to use both devices, as it is true that in some situations, such a tree wells, the Avalung has the advantage.”
When will Jetforce be retailed? “Innovation of this sort is a complex process,” said Nathan. “We’ll be showing the pack at Winter OR Show (January 2014), and we anticipate a late fall delivery date of approximately 11/2014. But we can’t confidently commit to a retail schedule until certification is complete. Right now, certification requirements are a moving target and until we know more it’s impossible for us to commit 100%. We will definitely be employing our advanced field testing protocol to continue beta testing this winter.”
Fan timing is controlled by the electronics. At this point in the design, here is how it cycles:
0-9 secs: Mandatory Fill
During the first 3.5 seconds, the airbag fills 100%. For the next 5.5 seconds, the system continues to run at full speed for safety redundancy.
10-60 secs: Active Performance
The system pulses between full speed and 50% speed. Since this is the most likely time to be carried by the avalanche, it is most critical to maintain full volume and recover from any possible tears.
61-180 secs: Volume Maintenance
The system has 20s stand-by intervals between 3s full speed refilling pulses. The goal is to maintain the volume to aide in visibility and meet CE timing requirements.
181 sec: Active Deflation
After 3 total minutes, the bag will automatically deflate. If partially or completely buried, this has the potential to create a large volume of air for breathing and/or extraction. If unburied, this simply helps repack the airbag quicker.
There you go. Rumors of this airbag backpack have circulated for several years. It appears the rumors have become reality at least in the prototypical sense. While we did not ski with the pack or test it in an avalanche, we did go through it extensively as well as deploying and packing the airbag. For a pre-retail proto, I was impressed by how highly designed everything appeared. It all looked like it could be retailed tomorrow, and that waiting another year could be considered ultra-conservative. As Nathan mentioned above, Black Diamond’s plan this winter is to have a limited number of beta testers, and begin shipping retail units in late fall or early winter of 2014. Nathan told me that the retail price will be around $1,000, which doesn’t surprise me.
Editorial note: We’ve stated numerous times that we’re uncomfortable covering products that may not be retailed for some time. Even so, when we’re allowed to cover an innovation such as Jetforce, due to how “disruptive” the product could be we feel it’s appropriate to preview it. That being said, always take pre-retail product details with a grain of salt. By the time the Jetforce backpacks are on store shelves they could be drastically different. Designers and engineers will make changes, and the European certification system is in constant flux. Main point is that the “fan” concept for an airbag backpack appears to be viable and coming on strong. Will there be one in your future?
Previous posts about fan based airbags:
Our take on Popular Science magazine coverage of Jetforce.
Arcteryx has a patent as well, we detail it here.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.