The NFL plans to incentivize helmet companies, manufacturers, small businesses, entrepreneurs, universities and others to develop and commercialize new and improved helmets and protective equipment.
Innovation Built Upon Innovation
In 2013, the NFL, along with GE and Under Armour, launched the Head Health Initiative, a four-year, $60 million collaboration to accelerate diagnosis and improve treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI). As part of the initiative a four-year, $40 million research and development program was developed to advance next-generation brain imaging technologies that take a whole-brain approach to improving the diagnosis and treatment of patients with mild traumatic brain injury.
Additionally, a two-year, open-innovation challenge provided $20 million in grants to scientists, academics, experts and entrepreneurs worldwide across three innovation challenges aimed at spurring disruptive advancements to better understand, diagnose and protect against traumatic brain injury. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is also supporting this effort, specifically Head Health Challenge III, aimed at developing advanced materials for impact mitigation.
Building on the success of the challenges, the NFL is looking to support world-class biomechanical engineers in their efforts to further accelerate innovation.
It’s a five-year plan that the NFL is calling the “engineering roadmap.” The goal is stimulating the marketplace to design and manufacture new protective equipment that is safer than current models. Through improved designs and materials, biomechanical engineers, material scientists and many others will develop equipment that better mitigates the force of hits—and thereby potentially decrease the likelihood of a concussion.
The NFL hopes that these new helmet concepts will be in development within three years.
Leading biomechanical engineers will also explore the concept of position-specific helmets—helmets designed to the specific needs of individual positions. After all, game and injury statistics show that linemen experience different impacts than a defensive back or wide receiver. Their protective equipment, however, remains the same. The NFL wants engineers to use that information to consider design changes that address the specific needs of each position.
The NFL’s role will be to create an environment that encourages the market to develop better equipment. Those who come up with the best ideas will own those ideas and create their own businesses.
Design, Data and Discussion
Expert engineers from the University of Virginia, Duke University and elsewhere are leading this project with the NFL’s support.
This team has designed a three-part program to achieve the effort’s goals:
- The NFL will support the creation of modern engineering tools, like finite element models of helmets, and make them available to the public. These models will allow anyone with an engineering idea to test it in a digital environment. Concepts for different helmet shapes and sizes, or even new chinstraps will be able to be tested in a computer environment at almost no cost.
- Through enhanced video review of injury-causing plays as well as the digital reconstruction of those hits, engineers can better understand and measure what happened during the course of an injury-causing hit. They can also improve the laboratory tests currently used to test helmets.
- Measurement can be taken to an even more precise level by the introduction of sensors. The roadmap will include incentives for the development of that sensor to measure on-field impacts. While sensor technology is everywhere—in cars and even in clothes—sensors that are able to measure with great accuracy what happens to the helmet and the head during a concussion-causing blow do not yet exist.
- And for the first time, the collection of the data from enhanced video review as well as improved sensors will be made available to the public alongside advanced engineering tools allowing engineers around the world to design advances to the helmet.
- The NFL will offer rewards and prizes for those who devise new and better ideas. The new ideas will always belong to the inventor—not to the NFL.
The NFL plans to start accepting new ideas for advanced solutions in protective equipment immediately.
The NFL, with its partners at Duke University, will run crowd-sourcing challenges multiple times a year with awards for good ideas–both monetary as well as access to great mentors.