A retired surgeon from the Iron Range has patented an invention to minimize the serious risks seniors face from falling.

The SAF-T VEST, which is still in the prototype stage, is designed like a human airbag system that will deploy around the head, spine, wrists and pelvis to break the wearer’s fall. Inventor Dr. Jay Davenport, who lives in Great Scott Township near Buhl, said his idea for the system started to form more than two decades ago. After securing his patent earlier this month, he can work with engineers and other experts to help his vision come to life.

This conceptual image of the SAF-T VEST illustrates how the airbag-like system would deploy to break a fall. A prototype is currently in the development state. (Photo courtesy of Davenport SAF-T Systems)
This conceptual image of the SAF-T VEST illustrates how the airbag-like system would deploy to break a fall. A prototype is currently in the development state. (Photo courtesy of Davenport SAF-T Systems)

During his time as an orthopedic surgeon in Hibbing and Virginia from 1970 to 1998, Davenport noticed that many of the patients he saw who were over age 60 were suffering injuries from falls.

He then started to think about the preventative measures that air bags and seat belts in vehicles provide.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“You didn't prevent the accident from happening — you just reduced the severity of the accident when it did happen. I thought I could begin to develop that idea by recognizing that falls would be inevitable and reduce the impact,” Davenport said. “The only way you can prevent someone from falling is not letting them out of bed.”

Jay Davenport has been working with his son, Ryan Davenport, of Minneapolis, to collaborate with engineers and researchers. Partnerships with Mesabi Range College and the University of St. Thomas engineering students have confirmed to the Davenports that the SAF-T VEST is a plausible invention and helped them with the process. They continue to work with St. Thomas students to perfect the prototype.

“I don't have any doubt that the idea of the SAF-T VEST is a solid one, and I have no doubt that the engineering problems can be resolved,” Jay Davenport said. “There just hasn’t been research done. No one has really thought about combining these ideas together to prevent falls.”

The biggest roadblocks they are working to overcome are ensuring that the SAF-T VEST only deploys during a fall and not during normal movement, and finding a way for the vest to inflate in less than a second during a fall, then immediately start to deflate before impact.

PREVIOUSLY:

“If you have rigid, hard airbags that you’re falling on, it’s not a lot different than hitting the floor,” Ryan Davenport said. “So you want to have an airbag that will just break that fall, then let you down gently as the air escapes.”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 36 million falls in 2018. As the American population continues to age, the CDC predicts there could be 52 million falls a year by 2030. About $50 billion is spent on medical costs related to non-fatal falling injuries every year in the U.S.

The Davenports said they hope for the SAF-T VEST to be a sort of insurance policy for seniors who want to continue to live their lives without the fear of hurting themselves doing everyday activities. Jay Davenport said he hopes his invention will keep seniors active and independent, as well as minimize the amount of injuries and costs related to falls.

The patent for Davenport SAF-T Systems will remain in effect until 2038. Ryan Davenport said they hope to secure a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health or backing from private investors so they can complete all steps of development.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health and business for the Duluth News Tribune. Contact her at 218-723-5320 or lbutterbrodt@duluthnews.com.