By Joe Lemire
September 7, 2018
This four-part series examines the NFL’s $60 million investment in the Engineering Roadmap to develop research and technology to make football safer. Part one discusses the data behind the controversial helmet rule. Part two outlines the engineering work supporting the roadmap. Part three discusses the crowdsourcing of innovative solutions. This part looks at the future of the program and a new data collection device.
The University of Virginia football team’s season-opening 42-13 victory over Richmond seemed like just an unremarkable rout of a much smaller program. Hidden from public view, however, was something quite noteworthy: at least two-dozen Virginia players were wearing a new sensor technology embedded in their mouthguards that had been developed by NFL-commissioned engineers.
When the NFL allocated $60 million to its Engineering Roadmap of health and safety initiatives in 2016, the league selected the leaders of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics to head the effort. The center’s director, Jeff Crandall, and his deputy, Richard Kent, have overseen that research from their Biocore consulting lab in Charlottesville.
Previous efforts to monitor head impacts focused primarily on sensors built into helmets, but tests of those systems showed that the head often moves differently than an exterior shell. Mouthguards are preferable because the upper jaw is part of the skull. The league has tested a number of commercial and research sensor-laden mouthguards, but Biocore has also developed its own version under the stewardship of senior research scientist Nate Dau. If the pilot test with Virginia goes well, the goal will be to provide the mouthguards to NFL players on a handful of teams on a limited basis in 2019.
“We’ve been focusing heavily on the technology,” Crandall said. “What we’ve done is invested into a new technology that has very high accuracy, very small, fits into a package into a mouthguard. It’s much smaller than what was available on the market. It’s a completely new line of sensor technology.”
Few specifics are available about the device or the trial. Crandall said the Biocore product uses minimal power, is of minimal size, and was built in coordination with a sensor partner and a boutique electronics partner. He added that the device was custom-built to measure head kinematics during typical NFL impacts and that there has been significant feedback from the NFLPA about the size and fit.
The league will spend this college football season monitoring the performance of the technology before deciding on its future. NFLPA consultant Kristy Arbogast, who is also the director of engineering for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has consulted closely with Biocore on the project and said there have been three points of emphasis: data accuracy, minimal intrusion into an NFL team’s routines and workflow; and comfort and usability for the players. (“I can design the most accurate sensor in the world,” she said, “but if I can’t get a player to wear it, I won’t have advanced anything.”)
Accurate and more granular data is needed to quantify the impact forces on the field, and is critical for the NFL to improve player safety and reverse the trend of concussions—which reached a record high in 2017. Crandall has said there is a goal of introducing position-specific helmets to protect against the particular types of collisions each player typically endures.
“That will really tell us on each and every play the types and severities of impacts that players at a given position are experiencing,” Crandall said, “and really help us convert that information into a helmet that’s really tuned at a position-specific level.”
All NFL players wear Zebra athlete tracking chips in their shoulder pads, recording location and velocity, but there are no impact sensors on the field of play. The league and the NFLPA are collaborating closely on mouthguard development because it would provide the best data source yet to understand hits. In conjunction with the Engineering Roadmap’s forensic video reviews and other tests using crash-test dummies, the NFL will release that information to spur innovation.
“The outcome of that is going to be a level of detail and specificity that’s going to help an entrepreneur come up with an idea that’s going to address a specific problem,” said NFL EVP of health and safety Jeff Miller.
The NFL has not disclosed the results of its evaluation of the previously developed mouthguard sensors. Crandall said those products’ maturity and experience are beneficial for evaluation as his team pursues a parallel path. One of those mouthguards is produced by Prevent Biometrics. Its device will be available to thousands of high school and college football players this fall, according to chief science officer Adam Bartsch. He said Prevent continues to prove out its product as the company builds a robust system to support data collection and instant analysis. Prevent has begun syncing video footage with real-time hit data for evaluations.
“What everyone’s working on fundamentally is just trying to monitor the impacts that are worth monitoring and getting trustworthy information as fast as possible,” Bartsch said, adding later: “After one creates a gadget that you do some lab testing on, the challenge is then to build a system that can actually handle all that data and do it fast enough for all the clinicians.”
To further support the advancement of new ideas, the Engineering Roadmap had four finite element models of different helmet designs built. These complex digital models are a helpful tool for early-stage computer simulation testing of innovations. That in itself was a major undertaking, with each of four universities tasked with one helmet apiece.
“A lot of the design evolution of helmets has been, I guess I would call it, ad hoc,” Kent said. “Try something and see how it works, and it’s not very systematic. What you end up getting is very complex geometries and complex materials, like foams that are interacting with plastics.”
The process of shepherding an idea from initial concept through prototype, testing, and development to commercial viability can take three to six years. The NFL hopes the supply of data from all sources can expedite that process.
“Importantly though, too, as we provide that community the tools and data, their designs and their products are going to become more sophisticated,” Miller said. “They’re going to become more representative of things that can protect against specific events, which is the goal. You may see some level of acceleration there because you’re going to have a more specific target for them to shoot at.”
Other avenues of head impact screenings are in development as well. In February, the FDA approved its first concussion-related blood test. Banyan Biomarkers can test for two protein biomarkers that can eliminate the need for a costly and time-consuming CT Scan. Baynan and Quanterix, both former GE Head Health Challenge grant recipients, have begun partnering on some tests, and Quanterix CEO Kevin Hrusovsky believes his company’s technology will offer enough detail to one day make a more definitive concussion test—perhaps even on a sideline.
Earlier this year, Quanterix released a benchtop instrument that is more compact and portable than its signature wardrobe-sized Simoa machine. Hrusovsky said the process of taking blood and analyzing the specimen for the biomarkers that are indicative of a concussion currently takes about 10 minutes. But he sees a clear path to expediency by producing dedicated machines that hone in on particular biomarkers. “We probably can get this down to a few minutes,” he said.
The ultimate goal of all of this research and data collection is protecting player health. Whether monitoring for dangerous impacts through a mouthguard sensor or screening for a possible concussion via a blood test, the aim is to find ways to decrease the risk and seriousness of head injuries.
“The real question ultimately becomes,” Hrusovsky said, “‘How can a test of our objectivity get further involved and integrated into various sports to try to help protect the safety of others? What does the test do to the culture of the game when it provides a more objective measure of whether or not someone’s brain needs rest?’”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell pledged that the league will “let science lead the way.” At some point, science will produce results. Then, the onus will be on the sport to heed them.