For decades, the appearance of football helmets hasn’t changed much. The technology within them, however, is constantly being upgraded to make the game safer for athletes. After the links between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and football head injuries became clear, the NFL turned an eye to helmet design.
In 2019, the NFL launched its Helmet Challenge, which would award grants to innovators who developed helmets that outperformed the current helmets on the field in protecting players from head injuries. The first prototypes were submitted in July 2021, and the league spent months subjecting them to a variety of abuses in the lab to see how they held up.
In 2021 alone, between the preseason and the regular season, the NFL saw 187 concussions. But the three winners of the Helmet Challenge are hoping to change that. Kollide, Impressio, and Xenith were awarded grants for their innovative helmets which combine sophisticated technology with sleek design and emphasis on player comfort. Here’s a rundown of each:
Montreal-based Kollide designed its prototype entirely from scratch, with no prior experience manufacturing football helmets.
Kollide is a consortium of four different companies that joined together ahead of the contest. Kupol specialized in 3D printing. Numalogics worked on virtual testing, originally simulating medical implants in the body. ShapeShift provided software that customized the product to fit the players perfectly, using a 3D scan. Tactix was an industrial design company that had previously worked on sports equipment. The four companies worked alongside researchers Éric Wagnac and Yvan Petit, from the École de technologie supérieure.
“By combining our four companies, we saw that there was the potential to design structures that would improve athlete protection,” said Franck Le Navéaux, Kollide’s research coordinator who joined the team as part of Numalogics.
Le Navéaux was a professional boxer before his career as a medical engineer, so he knew first-hand the importance of protecting athletes from concussions.
“I know what it is to have a concussion,” Le Navéaux said. “I’m not so into football — I’m from France, we have rugby — but I really relate on the athlete protection, and on a personal level, I agreed to the project.”
Kollide’s approach was to consider the helmet as a medical device. The liner of the helmet is made out of 95 pads 3D-printed in a mesh structure. The pads also have a mesh interior, which absorbs and redirects energy from impacts. Each area of the helmet is optimized for the type of impact most likely to occur there and Kollide can use 3D scans to customize the liner to the players’ heads.
In developing the helmet, Kollide ran simulations that virtually tested the various designs. The tests were quick and eliminated the need for making multiple prototypes, which cut back on costs. This played an essential role during COVID-19 when the team dealt with issues of social distancing and supply chain delays.
In testing the helmet, Kollide met with players from the Canadian Football League to get feedback on its design.
“NFL couture is quite specific,” Le Navéaux observed. “There is a legacy. [People] know what a football player should look like and they tend to follow this style.”
The NFL awarded Kollide $550,000, the largest amount of all three companies in the competition.
Impressio, a Denver-based startup, was awarded $454,000 by the NFL for its work using liquid crystal elastomers in helmets to prevent concussions.
Liquid crystal elastomers form a rubbery material that absorbs and dissipates energy. The elastomers mimic tissues in the body, like cartilage or muscle. Impressio initially focused on medical uses for the elastomers, applying them inside the body to dissipate shocks or impacts on joints.
Chris Yakacki, the company’s co-founder, is also an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and has worked with liquid crystal elastomers for years.
“We have a great shock and impact dissipater,” said Yakacki in an NFL video. “Why don’t we try to use it for head protection?”
The outer shell of Impressio’s helmet looks conventional, but internally, the technology works to protect the players from concussions. The inside is lined with a 3D-printed lattice structure made out of columns with the liquid crystal elastomers inside so that in event of an impact, the columns will buckle and the elastomers will absorb the energy.
“We have this material that’s very soft, very comfortable, can form to your head,” Yakacki told the Denver Channel. “But when impacted, all those small molecular crystals will rotate, get rid of the energy, and attenuate those accelerations experienced by the wearer.”
Detroit-based Xenith, which was awarded $496,500 in the Helmet Challenge, was the only company out of the three that previously manufactured football helmets. Xenith coordinated the development with RHEON Labs in London, BASF 3DP Solutions in Germany, and the University of Waterloo in Canada.
Xenith already had a longstanding relationship with the NFL, and in the locker rooms, they asked players what they valued in a helmet. Many of the athletes said they wanted improvements in the fit. The company also took feedback from their partnerships with D1 and D2 universities, as well as high school football teams.
“Essentially, what we want is to make a helmet that can be put on the field at all levels of play,” said Ron Jadischke, Xenith’s chief engineer.
The helmet that Xenith currently has on the field, the Xenith Shadow XR, provided a platform for the company to build upon to create the prototype for the Helmet Challenge.
Xenith approached the helmet on a system level, Jadischke explained to Digital Trends, “not looking at only one component, but building a stack of components that make it the best performing helmet out there.”
The helmet consists of a variable-stiffness shell, a 3D-printed lattice liner made in collaboration with BASF, geometric RHEON energy control structures, and Kinetix foam inserts.
The technology from RHEON, which goes between the comfort liner and the shell, is the primary component of the helmet that works to protect the players from impacts. The material is made out of reactive polymers which perform differently depending on the type of impact — for low-speed, it’s soft and flexible. For higher-speed impacts, the material strengthens.
Xenith has also worked on how to make their helmets customizable to fit all shapes and sizes of heads.
“Our goal is to put the best-performing helmet, infused with innovation and research, on the field that we can,” said Jadischke.