Helmet Technology Adapts to Protect Athletes

Peter Suciu for RedOrbit

Today the helmet is as ubiquitous to football as the old pigskin ball (which actually isn´t pigskin these days). However, there was a time when helmets weren´t worn, nor were pads or other safety equipment. The game was at one point in the early 20th century considered so dangerous that there were calls to ban it. And it actually took President Theodore Roosevelt to step in and help make the game safer.

Of course now helmets are required in pro sports — including football, baseball, hockey, and cycling. The former two took a while for adoption, with some competitors protesting the need for such protection. However, given what recent studies into head related injuries have shown it is surprising anyone would think of playing a contact sport or ride a bike at high speeds without a helmet.

Head protection has also made its way to the ski slopes where skiers and snowboarders alike have begun to realize the need for this protection. This has in turn created a cottage industry for helmet makers, designers and innovators. But the result is that the so-called brain buckets are probably doing a much better job protecting the brains.

Helmet design has thus come a long ways. The earliest football helmets were made of leather and provided some protection, but the first plastic football helmet wasn´t even introduced until 1939 by Riddell. It is also worth noting that Riddell´s headband and liner suspension system were so innovative that this found its way to the American M1 steel helmet used in World War II. This basic lining system was so successful it was utilized by nations around the world, and only recently has been replaced by more form fitting and customizable systems.

Damaged Helmet Doesn´t Protect

One thing that Riddell has also learned is that a damaged helmet doesn´t do much good at protecting the wearer. Last fall the company, which is the official helmet maker of the National Football League, called for an in-season time out that would allow coaches, players and parents of youth athletes to inspect the equipment.

“Between regular practices and games, a player´s equipment experiences hours of use,” said Dan Arment, president of Riddell in a statement. “Inspecting equipment throughout the season helps ensure it´s prepared to perform its job — protecting players on the field.”

What the eyes and even touch can´t see can still be a problem. To that end the Brain Injury Association of Canada recently noted that the lifespan of helmet could be vastly shortened by regular use. This applies to football, hockey and even alpine sport helmets. Testing revealed there is as much as a 30 percent increase in the risk of injury every time a helmet receives a significant impact.

Canadian-based Impact-Alert has stepped in to help the wearer — as well as coaches and trainers — determine how much potential damage a helmet may have taken. The company´s electronic sensor can be installed in a helmet and track how sustained a hit or impact is and help the user determine if it needs to be replaced.

Taking Hits Differently

In the old days of pro cycling riders would sometimes say they didn´t need a helmet because “they knew how to fall.” If that sounds dubious, it is, and no one can truly know how they might hit the ground. But the truth is that most helmets have been designed with blunt impacts in mind.

Just as there is no way to know how to fall, not all impacts are the same. Research has shown that there are other types of impacts.

One company, MIPS — or multi-directional impact protection system — has created a helmet that can protect the head from glancing blows or falls that aren´t exactly an outright impact. The solution here is provide a helmet with the built-in system that will allow the shell to shift under pressure or impact, while the lining and internal pads remain in place, thus protecting from rotational forms.

The same concept is being utilized by the makers of the Vaco 12 helmet — which has earned the nickname “beanbag helmet” as the liner features tiny round beads that resemble those in a beanbag chair. The concept is based on the idea that each bead has a limited number of contact points; that being 12, where each bead can receive the kinetic energy in a hit and pass it to is 12 contact points, which further pass it on. The energy weakens accordingly and thus also reduces the impact forces and rotational forces. As with other concepts in the works, this involves a solid outer shell and a snug internal liner.

Sport specific designs are also being considered.

Bauer, which also has a long history of helmet development, this year introduced a hockey-specific helmet that can manage the multiple types of hits including rotational-force impacts. It features a liner made of a light and pliable material that has the ability to dissipate extreme force.

Recycle When Reuse Isn´t Possible

One issue that remains with most athletic helmets is that the design essentially consists of composite materials, or at least a composite design. This in turn means that the helmets are very difficult to recycle at end of use — with this fact likely one culprit for why helmets are seldom replaced.

Fortunately there are efforts under way to find methods to recycle helmets. Issues remain, notably that the foam materials used in cycling, snowboard, ski and other athletic helmets tend to be neither biodegradable or photo-degradable. In other words that used bike helmet could be in a land fill for a long time without proper recycling efforts.

Some companies are considering this issue, and one solution from Pro-Tec is to create a helmet that could actually survive multiple impacts. This works because the helmet features multi-impact rebounding foam that can be reconstituted after a crash. This could allow the helmet to be used time and time again. So far the company has produced the Pro-Tec B2 Snow version, but as with the other solutions these could be rather hot for summer sports.

In the end it is probably safe to say that any helmet is better than no helmet at all, but it is important for the wearer not to expect too much from the helmet either. Ironically a study conducted last year in Canada found that in some cases cyclists became more daring when wearing a helmet. It may be called a brain bucket, but commonsense is still the final key.

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