(Image: lsu.edu)

Among the attendees was LSU Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Hunter Gilbert. He returned to LSU’s campus and soon began work on a prototype with LSU Assistant Professor Genevieve Palardy and former LSU Associate Professor Warren Waggenspack. More than three years later, the team is nearing delivery of that prototype for testing.

“We started working on our own ideas in 2020 after being introduced to the problem, and we’ve continued to work toward improving helmet performance since then,” Gilbert said. “We quickly realized that the problem extends far beyond American football, although that is probably the most visible market for the general public. The project’s goal is to produce a helmet that outperforms all other helmets on the market today, specifically regarding protection and isolation from head impacts.

“We intend to have a first prototype helmet incorporating new technology and ready for testing by summer of 2024. The design process is iterative, though, and we expect that what we learn from the testing of the first prototype will lead to additional [research and development] and further improvements.”

Since the team began work on its helmet, a new member has joined, Andrew Becnel. The group has also gotten assistance from Noble Plastics in Grand Coteau, LA, and LSU Athletics staff.

Here is an exclusive Tech Briefs interview — edited for length and clarity — with Gilbert and Palardy.

Tech Briefs: Becnel is quoted as saying one of the major challenges is matching real materials and structures to theoretical optimum response. How did you do that? How did you overcome that challenge?

Gilbert and Palardy: We’re still in the process of overcoming that challenge. We have some models and simulations and calculations that tell us what types of properties will be the best for the helmet to have. And part of our iterative prototyping and testing pro-research program is to find ways of actually making the helmet have those properties, and that that has turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of the project.

Tech Briefs: Hunter, you're quoted as saying, ‘We intend to have a first prototype helmet incorporating a new technology and ready for testing by summer of 2024.’ Who will be doing the testing and what does that entail?

Gilbert and Palardy: There are a number of tests that would be conducted on a prototype helmet. One test that has to be done is a drop test where it's put on a dummy head and basically dropped from a height and different orientations. The primary objective of that test is just to make sure that the helmet maintains its structural integrity. That it doesn't fall apart, it doesn't shatter or crack in a way that could be dangerous to the person wearing it. That’s sort of your basic certification, right? That the helmet can survive impact conditions. So that would be the first test we would run.

The follow-on testing is more about impact performance. There is a standard test that has been incorporated into a relatively new test standard. There are a few different companies and labs that can run that test. We haven't selected one yet. But it’s an industry standard performance test for helmets.

Tech Briefs: Aside from that testing, do you have any other plans for research? Do you have any other next steps?

Gilbert and Palardy: The next steps I think would be to take the test results and continue to try to improve on them. The general expectation for any kind of engineering design endeavor of this level is that your first prototype should prove the concept. And then, beyond that, you're going to have to make iterative improvements to really get to the point where you want to be.

Tech Briefs: Do you have any advice for engineers or researchers aiming to bring their ideas to fruition?

Gilbert and Palardy: There are a lot of people out there that know a lot of things, and it's helpful not to be shy about seeking expertise from people that have it. I think you can make progress faster and more reliably when you involve the right people in a project. So, rather than trying to go off and do everything yourself, you take your knowledge and the knowledge of other people and other people's expertise and try to fit it together sort of like a puzzle that gives you all the expertise that you need to solve the problem. And it's one thing that I think we did well in our team.

Another piece of advice is to, in the beginning, define the problem that you're solving very clearly. As clearly as you can. There can be seeds of good ideas where there's still a lack of clarity in sort of what's the big improvement or what's the real crux of the idea here, and spending some time to sit down and think about those problems can be very helpful in the end.