NFL joins military in using helmet sensors to mine head-injury data

Ben Kotwica, Leslie Frazier, Bill Cowher and Eric Mangini sign autographs and talk to servicemembers at Forward Operating Base Arian July 3. The coaches are part of the National Football League-United Service Organizations coach's tour.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 12, 2012

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan  — The National Football League, worried about the impact of head injuries, plans to follow the military’s lead by putting high-tech sensors in players’ helmets to gather data on concussions that could benefit both organizations.

The Army has been putting blast sensors in its helmets since 2007 and will eventually deploy 45,000 of the devices to monitor head injuries suffered by soldiers in blasts by improvised bombs in Afghanistan.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an e-mail this week that the league is testing a range of helmet sensors that it hopes to install in players’ helmets to gather data on the causes of concussions. Information gathered from the testing is being evaluated by doctors and engineers and shared with the military, he said.

The goal is to prevent concussions — or at least minimize the severity — and reduce the stigma of seeking treatment for head injuries.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with Gen. Ray T. Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, in May. Since then, NFL players, coaches and medical personnel have held two meetings at the Pentagon with military leaders.

Last week, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, New York Jets assistant special teams coach and Army veteran Ben Kotwica and former coaches Bill Cowher and Eric Mangini talked about brain injuries and concussions with U.S. troops at Forward Operating Base Arian in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, McCarthy said.

The NFL is planning more meetings between players and soldiers to talk about the issue later this year.

“There is a tremendous amount of respect between the NFL and military communities, and we are working together to break down some of the stigma around reporting a head injury,” McCarthy said.

A soldier may not listen when his commanding officer tells him that he needs to take head injuries seriously, but perhaps he’ll listen if one of his NFL heroes says so, he said.

“Similarly, our players may not want to listen to medical personnel and coaches deliver the message, but perhaps they’ll listen to a Special Ops soldier who has seen significant combat action,” he said.

Studies have found that about 60 percent of former NFL players have suffered concussions and about 33 percent report having at least three. The military has reported nearly 230,000 cases of traumatic brain injury among the more than 2 million Americans who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military officials who have briefed Goodell on the Army’s helmet sensors say their devices are slightly different than those being tested by the NFL, which are looking only at the forces generated by blows to the head.

The Army’s sensors detect blunt force trauma to the head, acceleration of helmet and shock waves generated by explosions, said Lt. Col. Frank Lozano, who oversees the military helmet sensor program and was among those who spoke to Goodell.

The Army’s sensors have recorded data from 200 events, including 30 IED attacks and accidents such as falls and vehicle crashes, he said.

The sensors start recording any time a soldier’s helmet is involved in an impact that generates a force in excess of 150 Newton, a measure of force. Scientists estimate that a boxer’s punch can generate thousands of Newtons, but a smaller force is still capable of causing an injury.

The Army recently started deploying its third-generation helmet sensor, made by defense contractor BAE Systems, Lozano said.

Helmets containing the two-ounce sensors are being issued to troops headed for Afghanistan’s most hostile areas, he said.

The immediate benefit of a helmet sensor is detecting whether a soldier has been through a traumatic event, since some people who suffer concussions are unaware they have been injured, Lozano said. It’s far too common, for athletes and troops alike, to try to shake off the symptoms and keep going.

“Our system has an antenna that allows the helmet sensor to contact a field service representative and say, ‘I’ve been in a traumatic event,’” he said. “It will alert them to contact the unit and say, ‘One of your sensors went off. I need the sensor, and we need to examine the soldier.”

Some soldiers have come through events that set off their sensors without experiencing concussions — a sign that people’s brains can react differently to traumatic events, he said.

“What we are trying to do is collect the data and correlate it with soldier medical records in conjunction with the medical community and correlate that information over lots of different events so we can develop a more systematic software tool that can predict when an event may lead to traumatic brain injury,” Lozano said.


U.S.Army Maj. William Schaffer in the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va., displays a Kevlar helmet with an externally mounted sensor that collects blast data, and the sensor itself. The 101st Airborne Division is receiving the sensors before deploying to Afghanistan