In a ground floor lab of the New Engineering Building at the University of Florida, radiologist Keith Peters and mechanical engineer Ghatu Subhash are building the football helmet of the future.
They’ve spent several months dropping weights onto different types of foam padding material to test their impact absorption rates in the Center for Dynamic Response of Advanced Materials and tinkering with a system of fluid-filled reservoirs they say will absorb more blunt force than traditional materials.
Still in the early stages of development, they aren’t ready to test it on humans yet. But they are optimistic that their design will work — and eventually replace the kind of padding used in today’s football helmets and other protective headgear.
The inspiration came from watching the illegal street-racing flick “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Peters said. In one scene, a car crashes into a barrier of water-filled canisters. The water explodes out of the canisters, dissipating the energy from the impact.
Unfortunately, that kind of impact barrier is a one-shot deal, he said.
Instead, Peters and Subhash devised a system combining a fluid-filled reservoir connected to an empty reservoir. When something hits the fluid-filled container, the fluid shoots into the empty reservoir, then slowly oozes back into the container, thus softening the impact dramatically.
“The device is not really different in size to standard padding,” Peters said. “This is using simple technology that should be able to fit together nicely (inside a helmet).”
The technology is based in part on the work that Subhash has done over the last 15 years in improving protective gear for soldiers, firefighters and others in high-risk situations.
Their tests have shown that their fluid-filled pads absorb five times the impact of traditional padding. They estimate one to two years before such a product is functional and ready to be produced to retrofit helmets.
The padding decreases the direct impact from a blow to the head. But it doesn’t deal with the torquing, or rotational, impact from glancing blows. Once Subhash and Peters perfect their padding system, they will set their sights on designing the outer shell.
Preventing rotational impact would “require a redesign of the helmet itself,” Subhash said.
Subhash has been drawing schematics but has not gotten to developing a prototype helmet yet. Testing has been delayed and an infusion of investor dollars is needed to get them to the next level, Subhash said.
But they are hoping the NFL and other sports organizations will take an interest in their research. Peters and Subhash estimate their designs could reduce head injuries by 40 percent or more.
That is a lot to consider, given that 340,000 sports-related traumatic brain injuries occur each year, some of them permanent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And professional football players are struck in the head or neck at least once a game, Peters said.
Last year, the NFL agreed to pay out $765 million to settle a concussion lawsuit by 4,500 former players.
The time has come to revolutionize helmets, they said. While helmets have evolved to protect heads from a deadly knee or elbow penetration to the skull, Peters said, there has been no advance in concussion protection since the early 20th century.
And they believe their improvements can be made inexpensively, for any type of helmet — bicycle, football, police and fire protection.
“The whole point is to make it less expensive, to put it into small strips that could go into a helmet,” Subhash said.