The Football Helmet of the Future

Jan 05, 2018

Football is a sport of maximum impact. Between the beginning and end of each play, multiple collisions occur between players. This is an unavoidable aspect of the game. However, with each passing year these hits and their impact on the future of the sport increase. Concussions, once relegated to the discretion of doctors on the sidelines, have mounted and become a dominant issue for the football to address. Various rule changes have taken place in an effort to penalize those hits that cause concussions, but the injuries are still occurring. Aside from ruling out contact entirely, how can football address concussions? One measure that has been taken is in the development and engineering of the helmet itself. Over the past decade, major advancements and new approaches to the football helmet have been tested and applied. Combined with a new willingness from the league, it looks like these technologies are poised to be integrated into the sport. What follows is a quick look at some of these different approaches. But first, it is helpful to understand the issue that they seek to address.

What is a Concussion and How Does it Happen?

One of the reasons concussions are so difficult to address lie in the nature of the injury itself. The best way to illustrate this is by considering the head like an egg. The shell represents the skull, and the yolk within it is the brain. A concussion occurs deep within the brain due to strains on nerve cells and axons brought on by collisions that cause the brain to move. To use the egg metaphor, concussions occur when the yolk is shaken. Helmets have long been designed to prevent the skull (or shell) itself from cracking. Because these injuries aren’t as evident as a broken bone, a diagnosis is reached by a determination of symptoms. Likewise, it’s been extremely difficult to address safety precautions. If the egg does not crack, how does one know that the yolk is undamaged? It is the problem at the crux of football helmet development.

It is also difficult to find a one-size-fits-all approach to the different types of collisions that occur on the field. Generally, there are two different forces at play in a football hit. A linear force is applied in a straight-line to the head, often causing it obvious trauma. These types of hits would crack the eggshell. They are easy to observe and rule out of the game entirely. However, a rotational force occurs more frequently in sports and especially football. This force is applied angularly and causes twisting and stretching. This is the type of force that causes a concussion. For most of football, helmets have been designed to account for linear forces, keeping the shell from breaking. However, new technologies being developed are currently seeking to address the rotational force, keeping the yolk from being affected at all.

Engineering a Solution

Vicis, a Seattle based company, is engineering its helmets to be more flexible. The Zero1 is designed to bring about a reduction of the rotational force applied in these hits. Using ideas from the automotive industry, where the force of the impact needs to be distributed to keep the car from crumpling, Vicis uses multiple layers of protection in its helmets. The outer shell is made out of a flexible plastic followed by a layer of hundreds of columns made of polymer to absorb the shock. As Vicis CEO Dave Marver explains, when a hit occurs, the force transfers to these columns and “transform from an ‘I’ shape to a ‘C,’ and then snap back into place in milliseconds.” According to Vicis, by the time the force from the hits passes through these layers to the players head it has been significantly reduced from 20-50 percent compared to other leading helmets.

Another technology called Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) is currently being developed and implemented by helmet makers across many industries. MIPS can be identified by the yellow color of its molded plastic layer. This layer is attached to the padding of the helmet via omnidirectional plastic straps. When a rotational impact occurs, these straps allow the two layers to rotate independently of one another, essentially “allowing the head to float.” During this “floating” period, the rotational force lessens significantly before it reaches the brain. MIPS began with the intent of becoming a helmet manufacturer but then developed the technology so that it could be retrofitted into existing helmets by other manufacturers and have a greater impact. Self-described as an “ingredient supplier,” MIPS technology is being utilized by motorsports, cycling, and snow sports and is developing its technology for the military, police, and rescue services. Since it has passed through so many industries, MIPS believes it can be used by the manufacturers of football helmets as well, although much more research has to be done.    

Facing the Future Head On

Despite these advancements, the effectiveness of these innovations is only as good as their implementation. Fortunately, it looks as though the groundwork is being laid for this to happen in the future. The NFL recently held the NFL and National Institute of Standards and Technology Health Challenge III, awarding $500,000 to the winners for future research and development. The recipients of the prize, 6D Helmets, use an interesting hybrid of the Zero1 and MIPS for their helmets. Their Omni-Directional Suspension (ODS), already implemented in their motorcycle helmets, is similar to MIPS in that it uses a two-layered system to allow the head to “float” when a rotational force is applied. However, 6D also has “frusto-conical ramping chambers” within the ODS that act like a suspension system - that is, a spring rate that accelerates with impact while reducing rotational force. For the competition, 6D created a foam layer for its helmet to specifically account for the multiple hits that are sustained on the football field.

As evidenced by competitions like this, the concern around concussions has forced the sport to reckon with its inherent dangers. Even though concussions won’t disappear from football entirely, the advancements and findings of companies like Vicis, MIPS, and 6D should help to significantly decrease them. Football is a sport of intense competition. Luckily, it looks like that same competitive spirit has been infused in the industries tasked with solving its most urgent problems.









Image credit: Eugene Onischenko/