PIEPS JetForce Avalanche Airbag Review
Although we’ve played around with battery-powered airbags before, we’ve never done a thorough test. To help us accomplish that goal, we secured a JetForce BT Avalanche Airbag from PIEPS.
Here’s our PIEPS JetForce Avalanche Airbag review.
PIEPS JetForce BT Technology
JetForce is one of several different avalanche airbag deployment technologies used in airbags on the market currently. These technologies include traditional compressed air cylinder, compressed gases, battery-powered fan inflation (like JetForce) and supercapacitor fan inflation systems.
There are a few things to know about how the battery-powered system works. PIEPS’ JetForce inflation system is powered by a lithium-Ion battery that is designed to work even in very cold temperatures (-30˚C).
The system is capable of performing a self-check to make sure all electronic systems are functioning properly. At startup, the system checks the battery charge level, motor and fan operation and all critical electronics such as status lights, trigger electronics and the battery electronics. It will also self-diagnose intermittently while armed.
The system also has protection put in place to prevent the battery from draining fully.
Key Benefits to Battery-powered Airbag Technology
One of the greatest potential benefits that is 100% exclusive to battery-powered fan inflation is the ability to continue to inflate airbag in the event that it is torn in an avalanche deployment (say, for example, in a tumble through some trees or over rocks).
Upon deployment, the JetForce airbag will run at full power for 9 seconds, then continue to pressurize the airbag with short bursts for a period of 3 minutes. If the airbag is torn in the course of an avalanche involvement, these short burst will help keep the airbag inflated and effective, whereas a one-and-done cylinder will not.
Also unique to a battery-powered system is an automatic, rapid deflation. When 3 minutes have elapsed after a deployment, the fan will reverse direction and automatically fully deflate the airbag, creating more airspace for a buried victim. While other airbag systems will slowly depressurize on their own, no other system will fully deflate so effectively.
Another advantage of electronic inflation systems in general (including supercapacitor-powered systems in this case) is that they can be repacked in the field and, if necessary, redeployed more than once—which a compressed gas system cannot do, unless you carry more than one cylinder with you.
The biggest issue arising with airbag use today is non-deployment in an avalanche. Sounds crazy right? But it’s a very real problem. Therein lies another benefit of an electronic fan-based system: there is no cost or need to have a cylinder refilled or replaced. That means that users can practice deploying their airbag regularly at home to help them prepare for a real deployment in the field. More on the lifespan of an avalanche airbag in a sec.
Another perk? The JetForce is international airline travel friendly.
And finally, wireless device management through Bluetooth technology means the airbag software can be updated easily via the PIEPS app on your smartphone.
PIEPS says that the JetForce BT battery is rated for 500 charge cycles. However, the airbag itself is only certified for 50 full deployments (or a maximum of 10 years). Chances are you’ll replace this airbag with newer technology long before you’ve chewed through all those deployments, even if you practice regularly.
There is one significant user-error limitation to the way the electronic system works. It is possible that the user may pull out the deployment handle but forget to power up the electronics, in which case the airbag will not deploy when needed. This reviewer is guilty of this very mistake. However, overcoming this limitation is a matter of understanding how your equipment works and being diligent with your habits. Incorporating a routine of checking that your airbag is powered up when doing your trailhead transceiver check might be a good idea for example.
In the same way, it is up to the user to remember to check that their airbag battery is charged before heading out for a ride.
The final limitation is the price. The PIEPS JetForce is priced at $1600 CAD. That’s a substantial amount. For the sake of comparison, some less expensive airbags that use a compressed air cylinder can be had for closer to $1000 CAD (including cylinder).
PIEPS JetForce Avalanche Airbag Review
Somewhat surprisingly given the size of the battery it requires, the JetForce is no heavier than a comparable avalanche airbag that uses a compressed air cylinder (with cylinder installed). Nor is the battery and fan any more bulky than a cylinder and venturi inflation system. However, due to the way that the airbag is housed in the pack, it does consume quite a bit of interior volume.
There are two sizes of JetForce BT pack, S/M (small/medium) and M/L (medium/large). Personally, the JetForce M/L airbag fits my 6’3” frame pretty well. Surprisingly, I do find the back length to be a little on the long side at 57 cm (22.5”), even for someone of my height. When my back is arched, the bottom of the backpack is pushed up, lifting the straps off my shoulders slightly.
Fortunately, there is a S/M sized JetForce airbag for shorter folks which measures 53 cm (21”) in length, and which might actually be well-suited for most folks of average height or less.
One thing I really like about the fit of the PIEPS JetForce airbag is the way the back of the pack morphs into the waist belt. The waist belt starts out quite wide, which really helps the airbag feel well-connected to the body, making it less likely to flop around—almost like how a vest works in that sense.
One fitment criticism I have is the width and stiffness of the shoulder straps as they pass the front of the shoulders. I find that the combination of these details tends to restrict the motion of my arms somewhat as they cross the front of my body. Otherwise, the JetForce BT is comfortable and feels secure.
I wish there was an external shovel carry–it’s not quite a deal-breaker, but it is definitely a feature I look for in an airbag for snowmobiling. For riders who carry a shovel on a tunnel bag in addition to one in their pack, this is not as important.
The PIEPS JetForce BT does feature a few ski-specific things that most sledders will never use, like a ski helmet attachment system, ski carry straps and an ice axe carry attachment system. Oddly, I don’t see any way to attach a snowboard? That seems strange to me. If you’re going to design an avalanche airbag to appeal to multi-sport users, why cater only to some and not all? That aside, the vast majority of snowmobilers would prefer a dedicated external shovel carry feature over the ability to carry skis and an ice axe. But I get why they do it.
Otherwise, everything is there for sledders, including a few key features like the option for right shoulder deployment handle placement and a shoulder attachment point for a radio mic.
- The shoulder adjustment straps have a stop point sewn in, so you always have some strap to grab
- A leg-loop mini carabiner is quick and easy to use with gloves on
- There is a nice, big grab handle behind the shoulder straps
- The packed airbag is horseshoe-shaped inside the pack, leaving a little extra space in the middle for gear
- The airbag closure is a little weird—the airbag is somewhat exposed and I can imagine getting lots of snow and tree bits in there
- All unnecessary straps and attachment points tuck away neatly for a clean aesthetic
- The JetForce is available in three storage volume sizes—10 L (red), 25 L (blue) and 35 L (black). In a clever design, these airbags all feature the same base unit, simply with a different-sized “Booster” pack that can be zipped on and off. This means that for a very reasonable cost, users can change the volume of their avalanche airbag storage simply by purchasing a different-sized Booster and swapping them out
- The 25 L and 35 L packs have a dedicated pocket for probe and shovel
PIEPS JetForce Avalanche Airbag Review Summary
The benefits of the PIEPS JetForce battery-powered fan inflation system are all pretty great, and there’s not much downside. The ability to practice deploying the airbag at no cost is fantastic, given what we’re learning about the disturbing rate of non-deployments in avalanches. Also, to be able to repack and redeploy if necessary in the field is a boon. Not that you’re probably too keen on more riding if you’ve had to use it for its intended purpose.
I do wish that the PIEPS JetForce featured an external shovel carry for snowmobiling, but that’s really my only beef, other than the price.
On a less important note, I like that the size of the backpack can easily be changed to accommodate the needs of different adventures.
One thing that has not yet been studied is how much of a benefit is provided by automatic deflation of the airbag after burial. This could potentially have a huge impact on the survival rate of fully-buried victims, and I hope this is proven to be true with some happy outcomes down the road.