KITZBUEHEL Austria — A high-tech air bag meant to improve safety in ski racing was presented by the International Ski Federation and the manufacturer on Thursday, two years before its planned introduction at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The D-air system inflates air bags under the race suit in case of a crash, helping to protect the skier's back, chest, shoulders and collar bones.
"Crashes may always happen, but this could help racers walk away from it without serious injuries," FIS race director Guenter Hujara said.
A year ago, the ski federation teamed up with the Italian company, Dainese, which has already developed a similar protection system for motor racing.
Several World Cup skiers, including former overall champion Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway's Kjetil Jansrud and Italy's Werner Heel, have been assisting in the development of the system.
They've been wearing a special back protector containing a computer chip that collects various data about speed and movement of the body during racing.
"It's just a normal back protector," Svindal said. "We have been using them every downhill this year except in America. Now they have a lot of data they can start working with."
According to Alessandro Bellati, the Dainese engineer who is coordinating the project, the data is needed to determine the exact moment that the air bags should inflate in case of a crash.
"They will open within 40 milliseconds and reach maximum pressure within 100 milliseconds," Bellati said. "But we still need a lot of data to tune the system. We are still in the first phase."
Svindal wore the initial prototype of the air bag equipment during a practice session and said he was hardly affected by it.
"It's comfortable to ski with," the Norwegian said. "You don't really feel it. Even the small gas tanks, they have hidden them well in the back protector. They might still have to work a bit on the shape so it will fit even better."
The manufacturer planned to use gather data this year, before fine-tuning the system in 2013 and introducing it the year after.
The FIS is aiming to integrate the system with other safety measures. The air bags won't protect legs or knees — the most harmed parts of a skier's body in a crash because of the attached skis.
"We are interested in how to get the most out of this system," Hujara said. "If you can define the exact moment that a racer loses control over himself or his material, you could use that also to find a system that immediately releases his skis before he lands in the safety nets."