A researcher at Waterloo Engineering is part of a team that has been awarded US $412,000 by the National Football League (NFL) to develop a better, safer helmet.

Duane Cronin, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering, will contribute sophisticated impact testing and advanced computer modelling to optimize helmet performance and reduce the risk of head injuries.

Duane Cronin

Duane Cronin of Waterloo Engineering has been researching helmets and head protection for 15 years.

The goal is to develop a new helmet for evaluation using the latest test protocols by next July.

“We’ve got a short time to turn this around, so we can’t use a traditional build-and-break approach,” said Cronin, who has been researching helmets and head protection for 15 years. “It has to involve a virtual design that allows us to optimize, get it right the first time and produce a physical helmet.”

The project is part of the HeadTechHealth Helmet Challenge, an initiative by the NFL to encourage teams of manufacturers, academics and other experts to develop safer helmets using advanced technologies.

Four projects were recently awarded almost US $1.4 million by the NFL and will compete for a US $1-million prize for the best design.

Image of a virtual helmet used for testing.Researchers developed a virtual model as a design tool to help make safer helmets.

Cronin and members of his lab, the Impact Mechanics and Material Characterization Group, are part of a team led by Detroit-based football equipment manufacturer Xenith.

Project Orbit, as it is called, brings together experts in energy control, material science and additive manufacture. It also includes Rheon Labs and BASF.

Cronin, a Canada Research Chair in Trauma Biomechanics and Injury Prevention, previously worked with the NFL for several years to develop a leading virtual helmet model that is publicly available for use by researchers and manufacturers in the field.

Now, he and five members of his lab - research associates Michael Bustamante and Jeffrey Barker, postdoctoral fellow Donata Gierczycka, and graduate students Miguel Corrales and David Bruneau - will be utilizing the computer model themselves.

Computer models are used to determine the effects of impacts.

Computer models are used to determine the effects of impacts on helmets.

“We get to use our own design tool and other next-generation technology to see this through to the development of a real helmet,” Cronin said. “It’s not just an academic project. We’ve got an opportunity to help make the best helmet out there.”

Cronin has been working with Xenith - which already has helmets in use in the NFL - for about a year.

“The technological advancements we are working on now will propel helmet innovation forward and be used across multiple levels of play,” Ron Jadischke, chief engineer at Xenith, said in a media release. “There is no finish line. From youth to the NFL, we want all athletes to benefit from the work we are doing right now.”