Teen's woodpecker-inspired system aims to reduce football concussions

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The novel helmet and shoulder pads system weighs only five pounds(Credit: Texas Tech University)

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In recent years, a growing mountain of evidence has linked the brutal action of American football and frequent concussions suffered by players to long-term brain damage. When one Texas high school player suffered a concussion, he was inspired to develop a more protective helmet and shoulder pads, inspired by nature.

Alberto Garcia began working on a solution to the problem of brain trauma in America's favorite sport as a science fair project while a high school sophomore. He was inspired by the fact that animals like rams and woodpeckers, which are constantly impacting things with their heads, have natural stabilizers around their necks to prevent the whiplash motion after impact that contributes to brain damage in humans.

Garcia created a helmet and shoulder pads system with an integrated Arduino microcontroller connected to sensors in the helmet that stabilizes the head upon impact. When the sensors detect an impact above a certain threshold, the stabilizers lock the helmet in place to keep the athlete's head and brain from being jarred back and forth.

"If you reduce the whiplash motion of the neck, then you can reduce the odds of receiving a spinal cord or neck injury because all that energy is dispersed into the stabilizers," Garcia said.

The system takes a much more pro-active approach than other supplemental equipment, like the neck band we reported on that seeks to passively reduce the risk of concussion by increasing blood flow to the skull so the brain has less room to slosh around after impact.

New helmet designs are also more flexible to absorb more impact, but this is the first system we've seen that acts more like a vehicle seat belt for the entire skull.

The sensors in Garcia's system also transmit data about the force of impacts to the sidelines, providing data that could help in the diagnosis of concussions.

One key obstacle to the success of such a system is ensuring that it isn't so heavy and bulky that it could interfere with a player's mobility and gameplay. Garcia says his system only weighs five pounds (2.3 kg) and he's tested and modified it numerous times.

The project was a factor in Garcia's admittance to Texas Tech, where he's still developing the system and researching the market for it. He says he's had interest from the Air Force and Navy, who thought it might have potential for use by fighter pilots.

Garcia has a provisional patent on his invention and continues to look into possible uses in contact sports, the automotive industry and the military. More information is available in the video below.

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