With the exception of toddlers strapped into floaties in a pool, no one wears life jackets when they swim. But a new design for swimwear uses tiny air bubbles to invisibly add buoyancy in the water, so it isn't possible to drown.
"Even people who are very good at swimming can unfortunately drown," says Russia-based designer Katerina Semenko. "This swimsuit is created for everybody, from those who are just trying to attempt to swim to proficient swimmers. If you're good enough in swimming, it will make it easier to swim."
Unlike a life jacket, it doesn't need inflation, and because it's made with multiple tiny bubbles and tubes, it can't be punctured and deflate. It also doesn't float as much.
"The idea is just to add small, minimal efficient extra buoyancy," she says. "Just to support what we already have through nature by our lungs."
Semenko is working on the concept with inventor Valery Griaznov, who was inspired to create an unsinkable swimsuit after reading a book by Alain Bombard, a French physician who sailed across the Atlantic—without provisions such as a life jacket—in a tiny sailboat in 1952. Bombard wrote about the fact that humans naturally float with lungs full of air; it's only when we exhale that we start to sink.
The new swimsuit adds the same volume in air that we lose when breathing out—about two or three kilograms of buoyancy. On men's swimming trunks, tiny air-filled tubes run along the waistband. On a women's swimsuit, decorative tubes cover the neckline and air bags are hidden in pushup cups.
After building mathematical models to show that the conceptual design works, the designers are making prototypes and looking for investors. It's not expected to be more expensive to produce than ordinary swimwear.
"It's a very low-tech device," Semenko says. "It's like elastic tubes produced from regular rubber, from plastic. I don't think it will add extra expense."
Griaznov is also working on similar clothing for people who work in or near the water, such as jackets and shirts with hidden buoyancy, while Semenko continues to develop more swimwear designs.
"We're strong believers in the idea," she says. "We would like to save lives."