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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Alpinestars Electronic Airbag Protection Suit

The actual data logger is fitted into a pre-formed mold that maintains the shape of the aerodynamic hump incorportaed into the design of Alpinestars racing suits.

The long-awaited Alpinestars Electronic Airbag Protection Suit was unveiled to the motorcycle press at Alpinestars HQ in Torrance, California on Thursday April 29, 2010. On this date the culmination of years of hard work was finally revealed to the public and the evolution of rider safety has taken another step forward.

Alpinestars, along with many other riding gear manufacturers, are working tirelessly to bring state of the art rider safety technology to the mainstream. One of the first pieces of protective equipment intended to protect riders from a very specific type of damage, common to off-road riders was the Bionic Neck Support. After a string of debilitating injuries swept through the racing industry the need for additional protection could no longer be ignored. Alpinestars, stepped up and developed the neck brace. Now, in an effort to reduce injuries on the street, the era of the airbag has been deployed. Attention has been turned to the road racing arena where arm and shoulder injuries are prone to damage during crashes.

Extensive research revealed that, according to Alpinestars, 48% of all road racing crashes result in an injury to this part of the rider’s body. With that data in mind, the objective was to focus on improving the protective property of the suits in these specific areas. The design of the airbag system leaves room for increased area of coverage as the system evolves. With a relatively simple series of connections the airbag technology is destined to work its way throughout other key areas of the suit, including hip, rib, back and forearm. The analytical approach dictated that the company takes the process one step at a time. And that step begins with the most often injured part of the body: The shoulders.

Many riders were anticipating a miracle solution to preventing neck injuries but the statistical odds of suffering those types of injuries are low, while the cost of developing a system to protect against them and making it available to the public at a price they can afford is task that seems too difficult to accomplish at this time. However, the system that was unveiled is destined to be a success on a number of levels including its compact size, light weight and potential to open the door for even more extensive airbag systems.

Unlike the cantankerous versions of the airbag suits that have come and gone the Alpinestars version is very tidy and compact. In all, this system adds 1.1 lbs (500 grams) to a suit. In the example we were shown the hardware and firing mechanism is nestled into the speed hump on the back of the suit with seven strategically placed sensors routed inside the suit arms, legs and torso. The actual airbags are located over the shoulder area. When deployed the airbags inflate in 0.05-seconds and barely make an identifiable difference in the way the suit looks. Basically, the shoulders puff up approximately 2-inches and slowly start to deflate after providing 5-seconds of protection. The patented system can fire two times, allowing a rider who escapes a crash unharmed, to remount and rejoin the race.
The Alpinestars data logger is very compact. It fits within the hump of the typical A-Stars roadracing suits which allows the system to be tucked away in a nice  tidy manner.
The Alpinestars data logger is very compact. It fits within the hump of the typical A-Stars roadracing suits which allows the system to be tucked away in a nice, tidy manner.

The technophiles among us will embrace the effort Alpinestars put into developing the algorithm that determines when the airbags will fire. There’s no tether, there is no electronic aid that needs to be synched between the bike and rider. The system analyzes the situation and determines when it is appropriate to fire. It is activated (ready to fire) once the rider zips it up and starts to move on the bike. Sensors detected vibration so acutely that it was successfully tested during the TTX GP at the Isle of Man in 2009. Once the system determines that that an incident is underway the airbags are deployed.

Of course the concern consumers will have is that it may miss-fire. First of all, the actual airbag is so unobtrusive that only the pop associated with it deploying would be of any concern. It doesn’t drastically change the shape of the suit so the rider would theoretically be able to maintain control. Senior Engineer Colin Ballantyne reassured us that the algorithm is 99.9% dialed in. So, it could happen but it’s very unlikely.

Whether or not the basic riding public will embrace this type of safety technology will take some time to determine but it’s apparent to our Executive Editor and resident roadracer, Steve Atlas, that he is optimistic about the arrival of this first wave of safety tech.

“When is technology a bad thing? Especially when it is designed to save parts of one’s body,” asks Atlas. “I’ve heard about something along these lines for a few years now but it’s cool to finally see it come to fruition hitting the consumer market in a little over a year. When looking at the minimal size (it fits in the suit’s hump) and the small weight, there really is no downside to it – besides the cost. Granted $2500 on top of the price of a suit is expensive, but when flat-panel plasma TVs first came out there were 10-grand. Now you can get one for $1500. And how much does a broken shoulder cost? I truly believe that this is just the beginning; within 5-10 years any well-made racing suit or riding jacket will be airbag equipped in some way, and I’m sure at a reasonable price. What we are witnessing here is the beginning of a new era in motorcycle riding apparel safety and I’m not surprised that Alpinestars is on the forefront of this technology.”

After nearly a decade of research and development the latest in rider safety technology is scheduled to be released to the riding public no later than June, 2011. Initial pricing is not set in stone at this stage but Alpinestars’ CEO Gabriele Mazzarolo indicated that the system would cost an additional $2000-2500 above the price of a suit. Considering a entry level Alpinestars SP-1 suit retails for $899.95 and the MSRP for the high end Racing Replica suit is $2,499.95 consumers will be expected to shell out between $3,000 and $5,000 for access to this rider protection technology.

Of course, this begs the question: Is it worth the money? That depends on the individual. In the case of a professional or semi-professional road racer the answer is absolutely. When your livelihood depends on you being on the track and healthy, any additional piece of safety equipment can be the difference in a successful season and a wasted one. The same philosophy applies for a track day rider or a club racer as well since the working class needs to make it back to their nine-to-five gig in order to support the habit. In the end the call rests solely on the shoulders of the consumers. The question is what value do you place on your personal well being? Do you trust or better yet embrace technology? If so, then you may find yourself drinking the Kool Aid right away. If you are a wait and see type of consumer then you might want to let the technology come to you. As the processes are refined further and the hardware becomes more commercial then the prices will eventually come down.

According to Mazzarolo and Ballantyne, Alpinestars has a complete line of street gear equipped with this airbags, as well as off-road equipment in the works right now.


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