Research with Crash-Test Dummies

Simulating player impacts with modified crash-test dummies—like those used in automotive testing—is helping some of the world’s leading engineers, designers and material scientists understand how concussion-causing injuries happen on the football field.

Biomechanical experts are measuring impacts with special sensors implanted on the dummies and capturing images of the dummies’ motions with high resolution motion cameras.

The research is one component of the NFL’s Engineering Roadmap—a commitment of $60 million under the league’s Play Smart. Play Safe. initiative to champion engineering advancements.

The Roadmap, guided by engineers who advise the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA), is creating incentives—and supplying new data—for sporting goods companies, manufacturers, small businesses, entrepreneurs, universities and others from around the world to develop new and improved helmets and protective equipment.

Dr. Jeff Crandall leads the effort to gather this data. He is Director of The Center for Applied Biomechanics at The University of Virginia and Chairman of the NFL Engineering Committee.

“We’re going to use the data from these tests to design better laboratory experiments,” he said. “We want to understand the motions, the forces and the accelerations that occur during a game so we can recreate them in the laboratory.”

These forces may result from helmet-to-helmet impacts, helmet-to-ground impacts or even helmet-to-shoulder impacts. In conjunction with the experimental testing, researchers are also developing computational models of helmets to study—in detail—the motion of the head and brain and other body parts during impacts. These models will be available to the scientific and manufacturing communities to advance design and innovation around protective equipment design.

The Goal: Position-Specific Helmets

The more data available on injury-producing conditions, and how they vary by position, the more targeted the engineering design of helmets can be.

“Given that players experience different types of impacts depending on their position, what we’d ultimately like to do is have helmets that are designed specifically for each position,” Crandall said.

“A more advanced helmet would be more optimized for the types of impacts that a player would experience on the field and would reduce the severity of those impacts in a game,” he said.

Crowdsourcing Expertise

The NFL, in conjunction with the NFLPA, will make the collected experimental impact data publicly available to helmet manufacturers, designers, innovators, entrepreneurs, universities and others.

“The goal of crowdsourcing the data is that we can get the leading academics, engineers, designers and material scientists to all tackle the problem from different perspectives,” Crandall said.

Crandall said the ultimate goal of this collaboration is to improve player safety on the field.

HeadHealthTECH Challenges

The work to share data and improve protective equipment is closely related to another component of the Engineering Roadmap: the HeadHealthTECH Challenges.

These innovation challenges are intended to deepen understanding of and advance solutions in the areas of head protection, materials science and head kinematics, among others.

The NFL and Football Research, Inc.—a nonprofit corporation formed and financially supported by the NFL—partnered with Duke University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (Duke CTSI) to create the TECH Challenges. TECH Challenge applicants receive constructive feedback from Duke CTSI biomechanical experts to help refine innovations.



The winners of HeadHealthTECH Challenge I include:

  • Vyatek Sports received a grant of $190,000 to support development and testing of its Zorbz technology, a series of highly efficient energy-absorbing modules added to a helmet system that can be removed and replaced after a significant impact.
  • Guardian Innovations received a grant of $20,000 to support biomechanical testing of its Guardian Cap technology, a decoupled, soft helmet cover designed to augment football helmets and reduce the severity of impacts.

The winners of HeadHealthTECH Challenge II include:

  • 2ND Skull received a grant of $100,000 to further evaluate the effectiveness of the 2nd Skull® skull cap in reducing impact forces and developing a second-generation version.
  • Baytech Products received a grant of $178,000 to build and test its prototype HitGard® multi-component helmet system concept.
  • Windpact received a grant of $148,000 to support prototyping and testing of its Crash Cloud™, an impact liner system using restricted air flow and foam in helmets and protective gear.

Funding for Neuroscience Research

Another major component of the league’s Play Smart. Play Safe. initiative is a commitment of $40 million for independent neuroscience research.

A group of independent experts, doctors, scientists and clinicians on the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) have launched a program to solicit and evaluate research proposals for funding.

The SAB, assembled by the NFL and supported by the expertise of the NFL’s medical committee members, is chaired by retired U.S. Army General Peter Chiarelli.

“These are all individuals who have dedicated their lives to understanding concussion, traumatic brain injury and the brain,” Chiarelli said.

“Our job is to take a commitment that the NFL has made of $40 million, and help them spend that money wisely,” he said. “To try to produce something that’s going to help us in the area of concussion or traumatic brain injury.”

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