A lot of discussion has taken place lately concerning safety in the world of action sports. Given that the spectacle and allure of these sports is often their inherent danger, those of us in the community spend a great deal of our time trying to figure out how to make things just a little less dangerous for the participants.
This year at the Red Bull: "New Year. No Limits" event, a new player was brought in to increase the odds that Levi LaVallee and Robbie Maddison made safe deliveries to the landing area in San Diego. The backside of the massive landing was covered with a very special impact protection device from an Austrian company called Bagjump. I spoke with one of the founders of the company, Martin Rasinger, to discuss this revolutionary safety product.
ESPN.com: So Martin, what's your background in action sports?
Rasinger: I come from snowboarding. I used to be a pro snowboarder in freestyle snowboarding for several years.
How did your life in snowboarding turn into making impact protection products?
In the first place I was kind of tired of getting hurt, so I wanted to have a practice tool for myself where I could try new tricks without the consequences of the landing. That's how I got started with making the first bag. Then I thought, "Ooh, this could be a pretty good business." So I started to rent out and sell those bags where you jump in on purpose. Then (I) came up with new ideas and also protection systems now.
For someone who does not understand these bags, why do we need a custom system when there are already air bags in use out there and the stunt world has used cardboard boxes for a long time?
Well, it's softer and therefore also safer, because it is impact absorbing and it does not bounce you away like netting or car tires or foam. You still get a bounce from it. It's better than hitting a concrete wall, that's for sure (laughs). I think there are better ways to absorb things and that shows with our system.
What were the challenges in this particular bag for "New Year. No Limits"?
Well, because we are dealing with such a high-speed impact, possibly with the machinery, with a sled -- up to 600 pounds combined -- that was definitely a challenge. To choose the right material and to make the right tests for it, like in the one test where we were jumping from a moving car into the bag. Getting the speeds right, getting all the measurements right, obviously, and making the bag easy enough that you can set it up and tear it down on a daily basis.
When you look at this and consider the speeds: How fast do you think a human could jump into a bag like this? How much speed could it actually take?
Well, the highest speeds we had at the testing -- into the actual product -- was about 85 kilometers an hour (about 53 mph). That was really safe, so regarding the measurements and calculations of the whole thing we say 100 miles an hour. That's definitely something it can take.
Wow. That's incredible. I'm not sure how much you can talk about the actual construction of the bag without giving any secrets away, but just how different is this system to anything else?
The system we came up with is combined out of many different systems, or bags if we put it that way. The bag we built for the "Red Bull. No Limits" is actually 20 bags in one bag. It is built together out of separate pieces and the impact absorption is in four steps: You have a netting that envelopes you, that you sink into nice and soft. Then a lot of air space with our bristle technology that we have, we create a lot of air space. After that you have another more solid wall that pushes back onto another air chamber piece that releases the impact energy completely. So you have a nice catch and not a rebound or hitting through.
So it's not like those jumper castles that kids have for their birthday parties?
No it's not. It's actually the complete opposite. It sucks up the impact, but it does not spit you right back out.
Now that you have it to this point, where do you see the technology going in the future?
We are going to continue on more high-speed impact systems. We see there is definitely a need for that when looking at all the different races. Whether it is with machines -- with cars or sleds or bikes, but also into other sports where they work with regular systems like foam. Wherever we can replace foam. Where high-speed impact crashes can be prevented, that's what we want to do.
What other sports is Bagjump involved in now?
At the moment all freestyle sports that you can think of. Starting from snowboarding, skiing, mountain bike, BMX, climbing (for free climbing). We do our own sport we call Freedrop, where we jump off a scaffold or manlift into the bags with freestyle tricks. It's pretty popular.
What's the highest you have gone in that sport?
Well, we test our bags up to 160 feet freefall.
Usually when we do shows we go up to 100, maybe 110 feet, but for public up to 30 feet no problem.
So you actually do tricks on the way down?
Yeah. Like bungee jumping without a rope (laughing).
Who is the champion so far in Freedrop?
We have some of our team riders who take it really beyond the limits and take it higher and higher with their tricks. They are very talented.
Obviously some of the people reading this are really involved in freestyle sports, so can anybody buy a bag like this?
Pretty much, if you have the money for it. They are not the cheapest things to build. They are high quality and we offer a warranty on it too, so it definitely has to last.
Are they all custom built?
No, we have standard products. This bag for "No Limits" was definitely a custom project, but our safety systems are similar to that, just smaller ones. For the on purpose jumping, for the fun and training we have standard sizes.
Obviously the best moment and the best result from your bag at "New Years" is that it was never actually needed.
You were up close at the landing: What was your reaction to those jumps?
It was great. It was great to see them make the gap jump, land safely and ride out of it. And not having to use the bags! Although I knew if something goes wrong on the take-off then the bags would definitely be a safe place to land it.