Explosive life-savers: 40 years of airbags

Winterthur, June 2021 – Let's bang the drum for airbags! Exactly 40 years have passed since these life-saving devices made their first appearance at a motor show in a form suitable for in-vehicle applications. In an emergency, igniters positioned behind the airbag trigger a life-saving chain reaction in split seconds. To make sure these mini-explosions ignite reliably, sensors check the ignition units in advance.

When car drivers encounter an obstacle, they need between 0.6 of a second and 1 second to put their foot on the brake. After this short time, an airbag will already be hanging loosely from the steering wheel. On average, it takes no more than three tenths of a second for airbags to fill with 60 liters of special gas so they can cushion the vehicle's occupants against the impact. And at the same speed as the bags fill up, they then release the air again through large holes in their sides: this prevents a "trampoline effect" on the driver or passenger.

Because airbags respond so rapidly, they have already saved thousands of lives. Since they were premiered at the Geneva Motor Show in 1981, the number of vehicle occupants who lose their lives in accidents has been slashed by about 80 percent. Nowadays, driver and passenger airbags are part of the standard equipment for vehicles of every class. What's more, they have inspired a host of related devices: side airbags, versions to protect the head and knees, and also seatbelt pretensioners now give added protection against impacts from many different directions.

Dormant pyrotechnology

No matter where they are positioned in a car, airbags with their ignition and control units are concealed within the vehicle's structure so they cannot be seen from outside. The centerpiece of an airbag is the activation mechanism unit positioned behind the folded plastic bag. It consists of an igniter and pyrotechnic pellets. In less time than it takes to blink an eye, the pellets release a gas that inflates the protective cushion. An airbag system is usually combined with a seatbelt pretensioner. This device also makes use of a small explosion to lock the belt immediately and guarantee protection for the vehicle occupant.

Correct ignition timing and speed are critical parameters to ensure that airbags can always perform their protective function – even after the vehicle has driven many thousands of kilometers. This is why random sampling tests are carried out on the sensitive ignition units before they are installed in vehicles. These tests use measuring systems such as those produced by Kistler. Even in the harsh environment around an explosion, these high-performance pressure sensors supply precise values. For this purpose, the sensors together with the pyrotechnic pellets and the igniters are enclosed in pressure-proof containers where the test activations take place.

Sensors that can cope with tough conditions

These conditions present exceptional challenges for the technical equipment: the rapid combustion of the propellant triggers a pressure wave of up to 2,000 bar – which the vehicle occupants can hear and feel as a loud bang when the airbag deploys. At the same time, the temperature in the immediate surroundings soars abruptly to 500 degrees Celsius. Although these conditions place extreme demands on the measurement sensor's resilience, they are not so dangerous for the people involved in an accident: as the gas expands in the large bag, the temperature inside it drops quickly to about 150 degrees Celsius. This means that airbags are definitely not "gentle" protective systems – nevertheless, minor injuries to passengers and substantial damage to the car are accepted in return for their major benefits.

It comes as no surprise that airbags have now become established features in other forms of transport: protective balloons in helmets for cyclists or aircraft seats, and envelopes to protect high-performance drones in case they crash: applications such as these are no longer dreams of the future! But regardless of the purposes for which airbags are used, sensors from Kistler are always there to test the function of the igniters whenever life is at stake.

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