Concussion is now more of a topic in the world of sports than it ever has been. In football and in cycling - sports that necessitate helmets - the topic is a hot one; the NFL’s admission of the link between football and brain damage later in life has set a precedent that sports bodies and sports manufacturers of sports equipment must accept more of a responsibility for the wellbeing of those they market to. Lawsuits around CTE cost the NFL $765 million in 2013; it is in everyone’s interest to advance the effectiveness of protective helmets.
The industry is advancing along with public awareness, and there are now numerous new technologies on the market promising to reduce the danger of brain injury during a collision. From Vicis to MIPS, companies working to bring these technologies to market are garnering serious interest, and it is the latter that has touched on one of a helmet’s key inefficiencies: the lack of compensation for rotational acceleration. Traditional helmet testing involves dropping them vertically onto a flat surface and analyzing the impact. This method does simulate trauma, but is not how accidents actually occur at speed.
In football, a player very rarely simply takes contact from one angle with no sideways or rotational movement. Collisions are messier than this; a player can be knocked from their feet when being tackled and collisions can come from various angles and with varying intensities. As for cycling, the rider is ordinarily traveling at some speed when collision with the ground occurs, and the rotation forces endured by the brain must be taken into account when developing new helmet technology.
This is where MIPS (multi-directional Impact Protection System) is potentially revolutionary. Swedish neurosurgeon Hans Von Holst began evaluating how helmets are constructed in 1995, landing on the conclusion that existing helmets were inadequate in providing protection against brain trauma, the consequences of which can be severe. Fast forward six years to 2001 and Mips AB is formally founded in Stockholm. The company has since developed its technology of a low-friction layer that allows the helmet to slide relative to the head, one that is quickly being picked up by more and more helmet manufacturers. MIPS is also set for use in some football helmets, a welcome move following the NFL’s CTE revelations.
The concept behind the technology is relatively straightforward - the helmet is separated into two layers, the inner of which is allowed to slide and rotate slightly upon impact, eliminating some of the rotational force behind the collision before it makes its way to the brain. This lack of rigidity in the collision displaces some of the energy the brain would have otherwise absorbed, potentially protecting the brain from suffering serious injury. The company’s testing is sophisticated, dropping their helmets onto a moving flat platform which simulates a road surface at speed, as well as the more common stationary anvil test, as used by NOCSAE. Mips AB’s dummy head is fitted with nine accelerometers which measure the linear force transmitted during impact, which is then translated into rotational acceleration by a computer.
Radians per second squared - the standard metric for rotation - can be reduced by as much as 55%. Peter Halldin, a biomechanical engineer at the Royal Institute of Technology and one of Mips AB’s founders, said: ‘We can reduce rotation in all directions, and it's significant in most directions. We might get 35% in one direction, 25%in another direction, and 15% in another. And hopefully the 15% is not in the most common impact direction for that sport,’ according to Popular Science. These percentage points can be the difference between a football player leaving the field with or without a concussion, something Halldin describes as ‘f***ing amazing.’ The consequences in football, skiing, cycling, cricket, and any sport that uses helmets could be huge; the NFL brought the concussion conversation to the fore, and the technology that has been there for some time is finally getting the application it deserves.
The technology is gradually making its way into more and more helmets too. We have seen it in several high end helmets such as the Lazer Z1 and poc Octal. However, it is now also being seen in helmets further down the pecking order and Giro have even included it in some kids helmets, such as the Foray and Scamp.