UAB On Bleeding Edge of Helmet Design – Can we make football safer?

Cross-section computer render of the upcoming VICIS ZERO1

Alabama loves football.  But it’s a rough sport.  You probably know  someone who’s been injured in the game.  Recently, football has come under fire for the inherent risks, which include the lifelong effects of repeated head injuries, such as concussions.  Helmets used today offer protection from direct impacts, but little else.  Can technology make it safer?

partnership between Vicis, a Seattle-based company focused on safer helmet designs, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham aims to do just that.  By not only preventing skull fractures, but also reducing the sudden momentum changes that lead to concussions, VICIS and UAB think they can reduce both player downtime during the season and long-term damage.

How is UAB leading this research field?  VICIS, with the help from UAB’s Dean Sicking, Ph.D, are creating a new helmet design that uses advanced materials designed by the UAB Materials Processing and Applications Development Center.  By analyzing raw footage of collisions that led to concussions, the partnership can figure out how best to mitigate those impacts.

The use of the UAB Athletics mark on the VICIS ZERO1 helmet is for marketing purposes relative to the Vicis/UAB partnership announcement. This is not a uniform reveal for UAB Football. Courtesy UAB.

The best way to mitigate those impacts, so far, has turned out to be a system of stiff ribbing between the helmet’s hard outer shell and the underlying liner.  When involved in a sudden impact, the ribbing can deform, acting as a buffer between the point of impact and the player’s head like the crumple zone in a car.  The helmet, branded ZERO1, was field tested this past August in Washington and Oregon.

From Wired:

Here’s an elementary physics metaphor to help you understand: The brain is like an egg yolk. Typical helmets will prevent the egg from cracking, but they won’t necessarily stop the yolk from breaking inside the shell. The Zero1’s core layer is meant to act like bubble wrap, so when the egg (your head) does hit something hard, the majority of the force will be redistributed.

Laboratory tests can only go so far, of course, and helmets are only useful when someone wears them.  We checked Vicis website and it shows that the helmet sells for $1500 each and states that they are currently ‘Sold Out’.  Let’s hope their production can keep up with demand.  We’d love to be able to enjoy our games with fewer injuries.

In case you’re wondering who Dr. Dean Sicking is, he has ‘been in the game’ of developing technology to make dangerous activities safer for a while.  According to UAB’s website:

If you have driven any distance along an Interstate highway in the past couple of decades, you have probably passed the work of UAB engineering professor Dean Sicking, Ph.D. And if you’ve had the misfortune to crash your car along that Interstate—and lived to read this story—it could be that you have Sicking to thank.

Dr. Dean Sicking, Courtesy of UAB

For more than 30 years, Sicking has been a leading figure in highway safety research. His designs have reshaped guardrails and other roadside barriers throughout the United States. He was also one of the developers of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers used on NASCAR and Indy Racing League tracks around the world. In 2012, Sicking joined the UAB School of Engineering as a professor and the vice president of product development.

We’re proud to have Sicking and UAB right here in Birmingham!

Author: James Ozment

I'm a Birmingham native who loves music, cycling, reading, and tech. Find me on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College, in Avondale, or hanging out with my cat