Marc Marquez crashed at 209.9 mph during practice for last weekend’s Italian GP at Mugello, but the Repsol Honda rider was medically cleared to ride the event, which he did.
How could Marquez be so lucky? Part of his “luck” was the performance of the Alpinestars Tech Air Race suit, which detected the crash and, within 50 milliseconds, deployed airbag protection for his shoulders and back, reaching full inflation 30 milliseconds before Marquez’s first impact with the pavement. The presence of the inflated airbags spreads crash impact force over a wider area, preventing the extreme concentration of force that breaks human bones.
For some time now, we have seen Alpinestars-supported riders walking into press briefings with mysterious “Spaceman Spiff” LED displays on their left forearms. These are the status lights for their airbag suits. The system includes a data logger, which reported eight separate g spikes—the highest of which was 25 gs—during Marquez’s 4.25-second crash.
The control technology behind this system is its crash-detection algorithms and multiple safety systems. In years of data gathering, the pattern of events leading to a crash was identified from masses of sensor output. Derived from this, activation criteria were then used to trigger inflation.
To prevent inappropriate inflation (the rider bumps a doorframe with his shoulder or tosses the suit over a chair back), three other criteria must be met: 1) The suit must be switched on; 2) the main zipper must be done up; and 3) the rider must be in motion on a motorcycle.
Data is taken from five sensors at a rate of 500 times per second, and the computer/data logger in the suit’s camelback scans this for the pattern that predicts a crash. The system’s battery provides eight hours of operation and recharges in the same manner as mobile phones.
Accordion-pleated areas of the suit accommodate bag inflation, which persists for five seconds. This suit carries a “dual-charge system,” which continues to protect a rider who crashes and is then able to remount and continue. In 20-25 seconds, the suit returns to its normal shape, and the system resets in 60 seconds.
This program began in 2001, activation criteria were identified in 2003 and John Hopkins became the first user at the German GP that year. Casey Stoner used the technology in his first championship year, 2007, and Alpinestars improved the electronics and achieved a “detailed electronic picture of the dynamic force involved in riding, and, most importantly, crashing, a motorcycle.”
In 2011, all Alpinestars-supported MotoGP riders began wearing the Tech Air Race suit. Marquez’s survival of this tremendous crash has stimulated discussion of making such airbag suits mandatory in the series.
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