Army team continues collaboration with NFL, Under Armour, GE for Head Health Challenge II

December 17, 2015

By Joyce P. Brayboy, U.S. Army Research Laboratory

A team of researchers from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory was one of three awarded funding in the final phase of the National Football League, Under Armour and General Electric's Head Health Challenge II with a chance to receive up to $1 million toward head protection research.

The relationship between ARL and the NFL, Under Armour and GE began in September 2014 when a small team of engineers and the laboratory were named Round One winners of Head Health Challenge II. ARL is working to further research and possibly develop a wearable head-to-body tether system that could reduce the injury potential of head-to-ground impacts.

Earlier this month, ARL members, along with teams from the University of Washington and Viconic Sporting, were announced as final winners and received additional funding to advance their projects.

"The collaboration with the NFL, Under Armour and GE is just one example of the Army collaborating with industry, academia or international partners to tackle a common problem so we can move innovation forward for the Soldier and the nation," said Maj. Gen. John F. Wharton, commander of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, or RDECOM.

The ARL team, part of the RDECOM, has become an eclectic mix since the award  engineers, co-op engineering students, a small business, and even an industrial designer from the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center have contributed to the overall research and testing program.

The core technology behind ARL's approach is a rate-activated strapping material that was invented at the laboratory. The strap stretches with low, elastic force at slow to moderate speeds, but resists with much higher force when pulled quickly. In the head-to-body tether concept, these straps permit voluntary head motion while inhibiting the violent head motions that are associated with injury.

"Our experiments show that peak head acceleration, an important correlating factor with concussion, can be reduced by 50 percent with our technology," said Dr. Eric Wetzel, Ph.D., the project's lead. "Over the next 12 to 18 months we will be working with commercial partners to convert our laboratory concept into a wearable garment for sports and military applications."

The instrumented mannequin test rig that they use for the bulk of their experiments, in ARL's Rodman Materials Research facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground, is designed to replicate a backward fall that causes the back of the head to strike the ground with high force and velocity. This falling scenario is a common cause of concussion in football and is also seen among military paratroopers during a parachute landing.

The shear thickening fluid, which provides the speed-sensitive behavior, has been studied by ARL researchers for over 15 years. The straps themselves were more recently developed under Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency support to help protect ankles and knees from injury. According to Wetzel, the consistent pace of exploration throughout each of these projects has enabled the present program's success.

Wetzel, who is an avid football fan, said it would be gratifying to see his idea used on NFL players, but a more near-term possibility is a commercial product for improving safety in youth sports.

"The support of the Head Health Challenge II partners has been critical toward maturing our laboratory concepts into system concepts that could see positive societal application," Wetzel said. Beyond sports, the ARL team is also eager to use the technology to mitigate head trauma for Soldiers.

"The reality of traumatic brain injury on the battlefield and the toll it takes on Soldiers and veterans is well documented," Wharton said. "We have to protect our Soldiers against unknown dangers, which means we can never stop searching for a better way or collaborating others who share an interest in this problem."


Last Update / Reviewed: December 17, 2015