The 2018 season sees the start of airbags being made compulsory for all three MotoGP classes. All riders with a permanent entry in MotoGP, Moto2, or Moto3 will have to use an airbag in their leathers from the coming season onwards.
This is part of a long-term push by Dorna, the FIM, and IRTA to improve safety for riders in racing. While the three MotoGP partners continue their work on improving the safety of circuits, the next frontier is improving the protection provided by the gear riders use. Airbags are just one facet of this safety drive: the FIM is becoming increasingly involved in all aspects of rider safety. Their most recent focus has been on improving the safety of helmets, including doing work on so-called oblique impacts, or how helmets absorb impacts when struck at an angle.
Airbags have played an increasing role in racer safety since they were first introduced to racing ten years ago. The original airbags focused mainly on protecting the neck and shoulders, their biggest objective being reducing the severity of the impact on shoulder joints and protecting collarbones, still one of the most common injuries among racers. As time has gone on, that protection has increased, offering protection to the rider's back, chest and ribs as well.
These advances have mainly come in two areas: increased computing power and a better understanding of airflow. Airbag systems have first to understand whether a rider is actually crashing or not (for example, is the rider just getting a little kick from the rear as the rear tire slides then grips again, or are they being thrown out of the saddle?). Gains here have come through better and cheaper processing power, but also more data analysis. Each airbag is fitted with a data recorder, which logs the data through the accelerometers and gyroscopes it uses to detect crashes. As the airbag makers have more data to analyze, they have been able to refine their algoritms more and more.
The other advance is in the pneumatics of airbags. Compressed air has to pass from the reservoir (in the rider hump) into the airbags around the body to inflate them within a few hundredths of a second. That requires moving a lot of gas in a short period of time, and that has required working out the fastest and most efficient way of distributing it from the air capsules to the airbag.
The advances have come in part as a result of the arms race between Dainese and Alpinestars, he two Italian racing leathers companies which have pioneered the technology. As each company improved their product - Dainese's D-Air, and Alpinestars' Tech-Air - the other was forced to keep up.
Dorna had wanted to make airbags compulsory earlier, but the complications of technology made that impossible. It would have restricted riders to specific suit makers, cutting down on their ability to find sponsorship. A compromise was found when Alpinestars and Dainese agreed to offer airbags which could be inserted inside the leathers of other protective clothing manufacturers. Alpinestars and Dainese offered the specifications of the airbags, without revealing the underlying technology, allowing other brands to produce suits to accommodate them.
As an example, here is a photo of British Moto3 rider John McPhee taken at Aragon last year. McPhee is wearing a D-Air undervest using an airbag. This fits under the suit from his personal leathers sponsor, Macna.
The push for airbags has also had positive effects for sports and activities outside of motorcycle racing. The technology has been passed on from motorcycling to skiing and horseriding, and Dainese is working on applications outside of sports altogether, including in public transport (buses), and even for the elderly, protecting older people with osteoporosis from fractures suffered in domestic falls.
Below is the press release from Dorna with more details of the compulsory airbags:
Airbags: compulsory from 2018
New regulations designed to increase rider safety set to come into force for the new season
From 2018, it will be compulsory across all classes within the FIM MotoGP™ World Championship for riders’ race suits to be fitted with airbag systems. These must be worn in every session by every permanent rider, and must be functional when on track. Wildcard riders are the only exceptions, and replacement riders are exempt from the rule for their first two events only. Thereafter, replacement riders’ suits are subject to the same requirements and specifications as those of permanent entrants.
The airbag should cover and protect at least the shoulders and the collarbone. Full or central back protection is optional. However, if a manufacturer chooses to have back protection, it must cover the whole spine. Small variations according to the specifics of each system are allowed, as are variations to accommodate the different morphology of each rider, but the same key areas and guidelines are in place for every manufacturer.
Each airbag system must pass a series of tests to prove it fully complies with the regulations. Requirements range from the battery and electronics to deployment and inflation times, with accidental deployment also an important factor. An accidental deployment of the airbag must not risk causing a rider to crash or impede a rider from controlling their motorcycle. In addition, airbag systems must not require any parts to be added to the motorcycle, and must be triggered without the rider being tethered to the bike.
Each manufacturer must self-certify on the official documentation for the suit that their system fully complies with the regulations and reaches these standards. They must also declare the reliability of their system based on internal testing.
These regulations mark yet another step towards increased rider safety, with the FIM, IRTA and Dorna all committed to making sure MotoGP™ is as safe as possible - and always evolving.