For six years, the U.S. Army has been using sensors embedded in soldiers' helmets to learn more about how servicemembers sustain concussions and other brain injuries.
The device resembles an Apple computer mouse and is designed by an Orange County, Calif. company as an early warning system to document devastating injuries that aren't always visible.
Known as HEADS, the gadget contains a sensor and data recorder that is glued into a soldier's helmet. The device sits dormant until a blow is detected, then it measures and records acceleration information. That data later is downloaded through a USB cable to offer medical experts a better understanding of what happened at the moment of impact.
"It will hopefully someday help them to diagnose traumatic brain injuries, and help get guys medical attention when they need it, or learn how to make the helmets better," says mechanical engineer Steve Pruitt
Pruitt is the president and co-founder of Diversified Technical Systems (DTS), a data recorder and sensor manufacturer based in Seal Beach. In 2007, his DTS team created the high-tech sensor that is helping the Army understand how explosive forces can lead to concussions. The National Football League is using that same type of technology on an experimental basis to learn more about the impact of the blows players receive on the playing field.
So far, more than 27,000 soldiers have worn the specially equipped helmets while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. soldiers have been diagnosed with more than 250,000 brain injuries since 2000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Early detection and treatment can lessen the long-term symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury, said Maj. Sarah Goldman, director of the Army's Traumatic Brain Injury program in Falls Church, Virginia. But sometimes it's difficult to tell when a soldier has suffered a concussion.
The Seal Beach engineers began working on the sensor technology after the Air Force came up with the idea of placing sensors in aviators' helmets. DTS engineers bid on the approximately $60,000 military contract to create the sensors, then realized they needed help to build a device that would fit into a soldier's helmet.
Pruitt's team partnered with BAE System, a British firm, to tap the company's expertise in manufacturing combat gear. As the project came to life, the U.S. Army also expressed interest in the sensor technology for field use.
In 2008, the engineers produced a device specifically designed for the Army. The first generation of sensors, called the Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic System (or HEADS), was embedded in the helmets of about 7,600 soldiers, the companies said.
DTS then developed a second generation of the sensor system. It uses less power, transfers information wirelessly and measures more data, including rotation, pressure and duration of an explosive event. An estimated 20,000 service members have worn the new generation of sensors, which remain in use.
The revamped helmets are not used to diagnose soldiers, but are instead used to monitor them, collect data and help the military better understand how brain injuries occur, Goldman said.
"We're just trying to model what happens during a potentially concussive event," she said.
Head and brain injuries also continue to be a major concern in the sports world, particularly football. The subject gained new attention after former pro linebacker Junior Seau shot himself to death last year; his family recently sued the NFL and others in an attempt to hold them accountable for his injuries over the years. Testing of Seau's brain has revealed he had a degenerative brain disease.
"Right now the data says that 90 percent of concussions are never diagnosed, so we are missing signs of concussion on the field or players are not reporting symptoms," says Chris Nowinski, co-founder of Sports Legacy Institute, an organization that works to reduce concussions in sports and the military.
The NFL and the Army meet regularly to discuss brain trauma. Last year, the two organizations started to collaborate to bring helmet sensors to professional football.
"I have great hopes for using sensors as an alert system so that more players are evaluated on the sideline, which should increase concussion diagnosis rates," Nowinski said.
Youth sports is another area of concern. Far more kids play football than professional adults. "You're going to get to the point where the mothers of the football players are going to say 'I'm not putting my kid in there if he doesn't have that sensor,'" Pruitt said.
He said the Army helmet sensors are being tested in some pro football games. DTS does not deal directly with the league, but universities and helmet makers work with the NFL and use DTS equipment in lab experiments, attaching instruments to people and mannequins.
Pruitt said he believes the demand for helmet sensors will grow as the public becomes more aware of sports-related safety issues. He likened it to the automotive industry, where seatbelts were a rarity in the 70s.
"Why is it that we went from there to 18 airbags in your car?" Pruitt asks. "Because of public awareness, and because the car companies have discovered that safety sells."