Football Helmet Sensors, What Would Knute Tell The Gipper?

Sensors Insights by Mat Dirjish

Football fans and almost anyone who watches television news shows has heard about the rising concerns over football players' risks for concussion and related head injuries. Like it or not, football is a rough game offering many opportunities for fame, fortune, and physical injuries exceeding the aforementioned notoriety and cash.

Although football has always been a hard physical contact sport, it is more so today than the days when Knute Rockne was coaching George "The Gipper" Gipp and his Notre Dame teammates in the early 1900s. Back then, players were lighter, smaller, and wore less protective gear than today's gridiron warriors. They were not as developed physically and they certainly did not hit each other as hard. There was also not as much money at stake either.

Until the Riddell Company of Chicago, IL started using plastic in 1938, standard football helmets were made of leather, offering players' heads about as much protection as a wallet could provide. And it was only until around 1955 that pro-ball players were wearing full-plastic, properly-shaped helmets with face guards.

Currently, college, pro ball, and even some high-school teams hit the field with more head and body armor than a renaissance knight. However, regardless of all this advanced protection, players are still incurring dangerous concussions leading to long-term medical conditions and, in some cases, expensive legal consequences.

Hoping to eliminate the problem and the possibility of costly litigation, professional football organizations and schools are turning to both mechanical and electronic engineers for solutions. But can technology prevent these injuries?

Half Time Show For Sensors
An approach gaining in popularity is the deployment of impact sensors in football helmets. A basic installation ranges from one to three sensors arranged strategically within the helmet that register impact levels via flashing LEDs. The color of an active LED indicates the severity of impact, i.e., green for safe, yellow for moderate (caution required), and red for high (removal of player from the game for observation may be necessary).

Boasting ease of use while being effective, one such example comes from Brain Sentry of Bethesda, MD. After activation, the company's sensor simply sticks to the back of a player's helmet via a peel-off adhesive. It requires no batteries and stays active for the entire football season.

The sensor idles in sleep mode and activates when motion is detected, initiating a green LED to flash at regular intervals. Upon significant acceleration or impact, a red LED flashes in three-second intervals. This event is retained in memory and if a second hard impact occurs within a year of the first, the red LED flashes faster; twice every three seconds. And if more impacts occur, the LED blinks proportionately faster after each one. The company recommends that the coach and/or supervisory staff follow a pre-determined protocol for concussion assessment once a player's helmet sensor starts flashing red.

More Sophisticated Systems
Riddel, the first company to offer plastic helmets in 1938, has also stepped up to the plate today with its InSite Impact Response System. In addition to an array of sensors that fit within a helmet via a removable liner, the system employs software in conjunction with a hand-held device to track each player's on-field impacts.

Unlike basic impact and impact-level indication, Riddel's system measures impact level, type (rotational, linear, etc.), duration, and location on the head. Wirelessly, the system sends impact data to the reader. Again, the company expects users and sideline authorities to take the appropriate actions once the system alerts them to potentially injurious levels of acceleration and impact.

A similar approach comes from Impakt Protective of Ontario, Canada. The company's Shockbox sensors fit most football helmets and transmit shock and impact data in real time to smartphones. Compatible with Apple, Android, and Blackberry, sensors from all players on the team are portable to a single phone.

Bottom Line
Ranging from simple to sophisticated, the innovation in concussion and potential-concussion detection is here and its intentions noble. Reports indicate that the National Football League (NFL) hopes to be deploying sensors in players' helmets midseason this year. It has also unveiled a ten-million dollar incentive program for designers who can come up with better helmets and technologies to improve the concussion situation.

One thing parents and sports aficionados need to realize is that, at this point in time, all of the available technologies are purely for detection of potential concussions and related injuries. They are in no way capable preventing or diagnosing concussions.

Like one of the rules of Karate, the best defense against a blow is to not be there. As of this date there is no real or effective treatment for concussion other than to get out of the game permanently. Obviously that is not a desirable option for the players or the fans or the coaches and team owners.

Perhaps at some point in the near future electronics engineers will team up with mechanical engineers and materials specialists and create a system that alerts the player to impending impact. Perhaps a sophisticated system that also offers alternative paths to avoid impact, and automatically, whether using MEMS and/or advanced robotics, orients the player's head/neck/spine to better sustain the impact with no or minimal injury. Hopefully, designers will score one for the Gipper.

Mat Dirjish is Executive Editor of Sensors magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].

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