A team of scientists from Brigham Young University (BYU), Utah, has developed a smartfoam-based sensor system capable of detecting the severity of a collision in real time. When applied to American football pads and helmets, the sensors could give coaches the tools they need to catch concussions as they happen, and take appropriate action.

American Football has the highest rate of concussions of any contact sport played in the US. Whilst the NFL and its partners have attempted to reduce the risk to players by enacting numerous rule-changes and supporting research into the next generation of protective gear, the fact remains that incidents of traumatic head injuries are, and likely always will be, an inevitable aspect of the game.

One of the problems faced by NFL teams is the ability to identify when an athlete may have suffered a concussion. Previous attempts to use technology to determine the power, and potential damage stemming from an impact, made use of accelerometers and gyroscopic sensors mounted on an athlete's helmet or mouth guard.

Whilst these methods allow scientists to observe the acceleration and direction of movement of an athlete's head following a hit, they provide little information regarding the impact energy of a collision.

The new foam-based sensor pioneered by the team from BYU is capable of creating a clearer indication of the power of a hit by measuring the acceleration, impact energy, impact velocity and location of a collision in real time.

The system, known as an XOnano smartfoam sensor, does not add bulk to the safety gear, but instead replaces the standard foam interior used in traditional football helmets and pads.

Here's how the smartfoam records data on an impact. When the material is compressed by the force of an impact, nickel nano-particles rub against the foam, creating a static electric charge that is then collected by a conductive electrode, and measured by a microcomputer. A hard hit to the helmet or pads would cause a significant spike in voltage.

The electrical signal data collected by the microcomputer is then transmitted wirelessly to a computer or smart device, such as the Microsoft Surface tablets currently used by players and coaching staff on the sidelines. This would allow the coaches to determine in real time whether they should trigger a concussion protocol.

The accuracy of the sensor system was tested by modifying helmets with the smartfoam, and putting the headgear through a series of 24 drop tests. According to the team, the foam sensors determined the acceleration, impact energy, impact velocity, and location of collisions with 90 percent accuracy.

The ability to objectively gauge the power of a hit would also remove some human variables from a team's ability to spot a concussion. These include occasions where an athlete is unaware that they have sustained a serious blow, and instances in which a player feels compelled to downplay the seriousness of a collision for fear of being taken out of rotation, and losing valuable game time.

The team has already created a set of shoulder pads sporting the impact sensors.

Outside of American football, the scientists are working with the US military in order to determine how the technology could be used to prevent musculo-skeletal injuries. The sensor smartfoam has also been adopted by a taekwondo equipment manufacturing company for its potential to train athletes, and even score competitions.

A paper on the XOnano smartfoam sensors has been published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

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