Revelations about the grave dangers of concussions have led to numerous lawsuits brought by college and pro football players and have prompted many parents and health advocates to question whether children and teams should even be playing contact sports.
Not so fast, say a growing group of researchers, who hope to save football by building a better helmet.
Chi-ming Huang, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, describes what he’s been developing as an “active” helmet. He discussed the technology Monday on KCUR's Central Standard.
It incorporates sensors that detect an impact within milliseconds, signaling rods which connect the helmet and the shoulder pads to become rigid like an exoskeleton. This dissipates impact energy away from the head and neck to other parts of the body.
“Therefore, the user doesn’t have a concussion or has a significantly reduced for concussion,” Huang says.
The system’s software also adjusts to accommodate the head and neck of specific users.
Huang says that even though the concussion risks have raised many questions about the safety of children playing football, technology like his helmet has the greatest potential for them.
“It is potentially easier to prevent concussions in children than in adults for the simple fact that children hit less hard,” Huang says. “It is more feasible to remove the force before injury.”
The momentum for better helmet technology is building. In September, the NFL announced it will invest $100 million in concussion research.
Many of the new helmets developed in recent years may function differently, but look fairly similar to designs that have been around since the ‘70s.
Huang’s helmet, with its exoskeleton rods, looks a bit closer to Robocop, and he says its use in regulation play would probably require revisions to current rules about equipment.
With the added electronics and support rods, these helmets would inevitably be more expensive, but not dramatically so. A professional-quality helmet retails around $330. Huang says he and his team have built prototypes using hardware store parts at an added cost of $50.
Huang says the technology already has multiple patents and more pending.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected. The original post had misstated the NFL's recent investment in concussion research.