At only 690 grams, the athlete hardly notices the weight of the avalanche backpack, but it ensures full safety: In the backpack is a gas cartridge that can be triggered at the touch of a button and inflates an airbag that opens behind the athlete’s head. This way, the freerider or ski tourer doesn’t get pushed down by the masses of snow in the descent of an avalanche.
Johannes Kuntze-Fechner is Product Manager of Safety Systems at Ortovox. He is a qualified industrial engineer, and was significantly involved in the development of the Avabag airbag system. In an interview with ISPO.com, the 30-year-old explains why Ortovox places value on proprietary development of an airbag system, which target group is being focused on, and how the compromise of low weight and reliable function succeeded.
ISPO.com: Until now, avalanche backpacks by Ortovox were equipped with the ABS airbag system. What was the impetus for Ortovox to develop its own airbag system?
Johannes Kuntze-Fechner: With the Avabag, we were reacting to the changing market of avalanche safety equipment. Our goal is to make the avalanche airbag more and more into standard equipment. To this end, in our opinion, the airbag needed to become significantly lighter and smaller. We didn’t have any influence on the ABS system in this regard, and so the goals for a proprietary development were set.
“The airbag has the biggest influence on the overall weight”
The development of the system lasted nearly three years. What was this process so time consuming?
We wanted to develop as small and light a system as possible. We pushed the material properties to their limits in many places. To be able to ensure high quality, we put our focus on a strict and detailed quality control and traceability. In addition, a norm for avalanche airbag systems was developed parallel to the DIN during the development, which be published soon. We had to get our system certified according to the new standard and, parallel to that, also let changes in the standard be incorporated into the ongoing development.
The Avabag is advertised as the most lightweight airbag system. How big is the difference in weight from other systems?
When we compare our system with the ABS airbag system integrated in our backpacks until now, we more than halved the weight.
In which places were you able to save on weight?
We followed various approaches. Our triggering mechanism is designed more simply, and we were able to significantly reduce the individual components. Nevertheless, the airbag has the biggest influence on the overall weight. Here, we developed a completely new welding technology: the material is processed without seams or additional joints. Through this construction and the lightweight material, we distinctly reduced the weight.
“The Avabag is perfect even for ambitious ski tourers”
What are the advantages of a lightweight airbag system?
The goal is for people to really take our system along on every ski tour. The Avabag, with its low weight, is perfect even for ambitious ski tourers. They want to be on their way with a little additional weight as possible, but don’t want to forgo protection. A heavy backpack is more uncomfortable and limits their performance more quickly.
You also designed a completely new trigger handle. What criteria were particularly important doing so?
According to a new study from Switzerland, roughly 20 percent of users don’t trigger their airbags in an avalanche. Among other reasons, it’s because they can’t reach the handle well. That is why we occupied ourselves intensively with the development of the handle. In an emergency situation, every handle should hit home and operation should be intuitive. We wanted to design a grip that’s easily reachable and adjustable to body size, and can be gripped well by any hand and any glove type.
Avabag: a deposit system for the gas cartridge
Your system works with a gas cartridge. Can it be refilled or does an empty cartridge need to be changed?
The cartridge cannot be refilled by the user. However, we can fill up the cartridge at our facility. That’s why we’ve developed a type of deposit system: An empty cartridge can be replaced with a full one at specialty retailers. If you purchased a cartridge, you only pay for the fill-up when changing.
Can the system only be used in Ortovox backpacks, or is it also compatible with other avalanche backpacks?
No, the Avabag system is only compatible with backpacks by Ortovox.
Are any collaborations planned with other backpack producers, then?Not right now.
What does the accolade from the ISPO AWARD jury as “Product of the Year” mean to you?
For me personally, it’s a great and motivating award. It’s worth the intensive work that gets put into a product. The award shows us that we made the right decisions in the development, and in the end an all-around successful product has emerged.
This is Ortovox:
Founded: Gerald Kampel and Jürgen Wegner develop the first double frequency device for searching for avalanche victims in 1980
Headquarters: Taufkirchen, near Munich
Award: The Avabag avalanche backpack was chosen as PRODUCT OF THE YEAR at ISPO AWARD 2016/2017 in the “SKI” category.