Student Wins Life Jacket Design Competition

February 2006 News

Adam Malcom, a graduate student in the University of Virginia's Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Program, was awarded the $5,000 grand prize in the first Innovations in Life Jacket Design Competition sponsored by the BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association (PFDMA). The award was presented during ceremonies at the Miami Boat Show on February 16.

"Boaters complain that life jackets are uncomfortable, restrict movement, or make you hot. So we decided to sponsor a competition to encourage innovative ideas to design a life jacket that more boaters might wear," said BoatU.S. Foundation President Ruth Wood.

Competition criteria included wearability; reliability; cost; and innovation. What was notably absent from this list was the need to adhere to any of the established life jacket design regulations.

"We received 182 submissions from armchair inventors, average boaters and students from as far away places as China and Australia," said PFDMA Executive Director Bernice McArdle. "Some designs focused on improving existing life jacket models with new technology or style enhancements. Other designs were completely outside the box with little or no regard to current design guidelines, while others blended the two. Two design elements emerged as judges' favorites: the use of high-tech fabrics that could improve upon current designs, and devices that were the least obtrusive," she said.

Malcom's winning entry was essentially the latter - a slender belt worn around the waist. The unit would stay out of the way and not retain body heat. When activated either manually with a ripcord or automatically via a CO2 gas cylinder, slender, symmetrically-arranged air bladders stored inside the belt inflate rising up to surround the wearer on all sides. No secondary action, such as sliding flotation over the head, is necessary. You simply float much like you would in an inner tube.

Born into a boating family, Malcom owns both a fishing boat and sailboat and plans to use the $5,000 to jump-start a career as an independent inventor. "We frequently don't wear our life jackets aboard for the same reason as everyone else - they are uncomfortable and restrict movement. But I
know how important they are so my design focused on remedying those aspects," he said.

The five Honorable Mentions went to:

 Sean Denham, a student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, majoring in Industrial Design proposed a T-shirt life jacket that blended a thin layer of kapok sandwiched between layers of neoprene built into a nylon/spandex shirt that also provided UVA sun protection.

 Lisa Ma, Wayne Chang and Peter Tong of I3 Design in Pittsburgh, PA proposed a series of stylish "shirts" made with an inflatable fabric and a transferable C02 inflation kit that kept costs down.

 Another student, Nicholas Weigel who attends Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, MI, proposed using a two-part foam that expanded to fill clear a buoyancy tube that went around the wearer's neck.

 The "High Tide PFD" designed by Andrew Valentine, another Virginia Tech student and classmate of Honorable Mention winner, Sean Denham, had a sleek, stylish buoyant vest design. High-tech fabrics would keep the body cool and earth-friendly recycled styrene beads were used for flotation and body-conforming comfort.

 "Aqua-Aid," designed by inventor Mario DiForte, Jr. of Baltimore, MD. A press of a button inflates a 12" x 13" brightly colored vinyl float that's packed into a small, wrist-worn case.

In addition to Wood, competition Judges included Virgil Chambers of the National Safe Boating Council; Tim Smalley of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; West Marine's Chuck Hawley; Norm Lemley of the U.S. Marine Safety Association; and John Adey of the American Boat & Yacht Council.

For more information or to see the winning entry as well as the Honorable Mentions, go to

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