Mass Recall Of Avalanche-Rescuing Airbags, Thanks To Static Electricity

Avalanches make backcountry skiing one of the most dangerous ways to get your selfies, something that Black Diamond’s Jetforce airbags promised to change cheaply and simply with an innovative design that got rave reviews. But unfortunately, the designers forgot one tiny detail, leading Black Diamond to issue a recall.

Airbag backpacks save skiers from avalanches by deploying a giant airbag from a backpack, which makes the skier float on top of the snow, instead of pummelled and buried within. Airbag packs have been around for a while, but remain fairly niche, thanks to high cost, and the annoyance of the pressurised canners and specialist arming mechanisms those systems used.

Black Diamond’s Jetforce replaces a canister of compressed air with a super-powerful fan, which uses battery power to inflate the 200L bag in a couple seconds. It does that while being re-usable, simpler, and probably cheaper somewhere down the line. Needless to say, the bag got rave reviews when it came out last November, and Black Diamond was out of stock all winter.

That makes it all the more sad that the first-gen Jetforce is being recalled for a potentially lethal defect. The recall notice says that there are two separate issues:

The first is a loss of synchronisation between motor control and the electric fan motor, which creates a system error that shuts down the fan motor. This can result in the failure of the system to deploy when the handle is pulled. The second defect is very high-voltage electrostatic discharge, which resets the system to the ‘off’ position. This can result in the JetForce Controller disarming after the system has been successfully armed. Both these problems can be resolved by an update to the firmware.

A ‘high voltage electrical discharge’ might sound like a rare occurrence, but it’s actually a particular risk for backcountry skiers: helicopters, which the more well-heeled can use to access cool terrain, build up a static charge that can be transferred to passengers — in this case, potentially disabling their airbag.

It’s a good move from Black Diamond to issue the recall — it doesn’t effect all the packs in circulation, and the fault hasn’t led to any accidents as of yet. But it’s a healthy reminder that miraculous technology can still fall afoul of the same physics that makes balloons stick to your sweater.

[Black Diamond via Wild Snow]