Intel Gets inside the Helmet
Medical body area networks are in their infancy within the medical establishment as a way of reducing the cost of care for long-term patients. Intel is working with the US National Football League (NFL), helmet maker Riddell Sport, and several university research labs to bring this technology out of the hospitals and into football helmets. In the short term, the project promises to reduce the risks associated with concussions. In the longer run, it wants to blaze the trail for other human-monitoring applications in military and recreational applications.
"The future of smart helmets is now," said Thad Ide, Riddell's vice president of research and development. "There are important opportunities to address issues of underreporting of concussions and possible issues with the cumulative effects of subconcussive head impacts. The potential for improvements in diagnosis and treatment of concussions, player training, and coaching techniques is enormous."
Concussion-monitoring technology can detect subtle differences in the direction and kinds of impact that are hard to see from the sidelines. Players meanwhile are sometimes too stunned to walk off the field, which has led to long-term injuries that might be avoided. The smart helmet will make it possible to monitor all of the head impacts and report them to a central base station. Coaches get immediate notification when a player needs to be examined further.
In 2003, medical researchers began reporting a link between concussions in football players with depression and degenerative brain disease. In 2009, the NFL began taking some of these reports seriously and instituted new rules both to force injured players off the field and to impose penalties for head-to-head hits. In 2010, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell began lobbying for legislation in all 50 states to reduce concussion risks in youth football.
Instrumenting the Head
Concussion reduction is a relatively new research area. The Riddell Revolution is the only helmet that has independent, peer-reviewed research showing that it reduces concussion risk by 31 percent when compared to traditional helmets.
Riddell pioneered efforts to better understand player injury with its Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) technology that provides on-board electronics to monitor and record every significant incidence of head impact during a football game or practice. The system measures the location, magnitude, duration, direction of head acceleration, and impact accumulations. Reports from data that's downloaded wirelessly from the helmet to a desktop or laptop computer after the game or practice show the magnitude and location of each impact.
Riddell also developed the Sideline Response System to provide real-time detection data that lets trainers, coaches, players, and medical staff monitor potentially dangerous head impacts. HITS provides the guidance necessary to understand and address a suspect impact if it's detected.
Bringing Intelligence to the Field
But today's helmets lack the ability to process data locally. Going forward, Intel and Riddell are working with researchers from Dartmouth College's Thayer School of Engineering, Wayne State University, University of Northern Colorado, and Texas State University-San Marcos to build the computing and networking infrastructure for reliably transmitting data from all of the helmets in the field.
"Computer simulations have been instrumental in designing improved brain-injury criteria," said Igor Szczyrba, University of Northern Colorado mathematical sciences professor in a statement. "In the near future, they can also help doctors diagnose actual brain injuries." His team is improving the computational modeling of traumatic brain injuries.
Simbex, headed by Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering professor Richard Greenwald, has been working on new helmet technology that uses multiple sensors on foam to measure impacts to the brain, rather than the side of the helmet. This will help improve impact assessment.
Wanye State researchers, led by associate professor Liying Zhang, are integrating efforts to study the neurophysiological mechanics of impacts, using medical analysis techniques that measure cellular changes in the brain.
Intel is also working with the Mayo Clinic to reduce the time needed to assess a head injury from 5 minutes to 12 seconds. The techniques will leverage the new Intel Many Integrated Core (MIC) supercomputing chips. In the future, the MIC chips will lower the cost of running real-time simulations developed by Mayo researchers that model stresses on the brain for immediate assessment of injury risks. The new MIC chips will be built on Intel's new 22 nm technology and could run trillions of calculations per second on up to 50 cores. Intel released MIC development kits earlier this year and plans to expand the program with new developer tools.
The helmet research is in the early development stages to demonstrate its applicability. "The potential for monitoring head impacts in other sports is a clear opportunity. Lacrosse, hockey, and snow sports are all activities where the risk of unreported or unrecognized concussions is very real," said Riddell's Ide. As the infrastructure costs come down, the technology could also move out of sports into arenas such as military and construction to improve safety equipment and reduce the impact of injuries.
George Lawton is a freelance technology journalist based in Guerneville, CA. You can reach him via his website: http://glawton.com.