Grad student wins life jacket design competition

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A graduate student in the University of Virginia’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Program won 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, BoatU.S. said in a recent release.

Adam Malcom was announced as the winner and presented his check during ceremonies at the Miami Boat Show on Feb. 16.

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

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 Bernice McArdle, PFDMA executive director. “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.”

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 allowing he or she to float much like 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,” Malcom said. “But I know how important they are so my design focused on remedying those aspects.”

Honorable Mentions

Five designers were also singled out for honorable mention, including:

  • Sean Denham, a student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., majoring in Industrial Design, who 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, who proposed a series of stylish “shirts” made with an inflatable fabric and a transferable C02 inflation kit that kept costs down.
  • Nicholas Weigel, who attends Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich., who proposed using a two-part foam that expanded to fill clear a buoyancy tube that went around the wearer’s neck.
  • Andrew Valentine, a Virginia Tech student and classmate of Sean Denham, who designed the “High Tide PFD,” which 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.
  • Inventor Mario DiForte, Jr., of Baltimore, Md., who designed “Aqua-Aid,” a 12″ x 13″ brightly colored vinyl float that’s packed into a small, wrist-worn case and inflates with the press of a button.

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

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