A brief history of Football helmet technology

Chris Perra
A brief history of Football helmet technology A brief history of Football helmet technology

Football helmet technology has advanced significantly over the past five years. This is in large part due to NFL Player Health & Safety. In 2017, NFL Player Health & Safety launched a $60M, 5-year project called the Engineering Roadmap (1). The project was developed to improve the safety of the game by improving football helmet safety design. The NFL & NFL Players Association (NFLPA) created a new test methodology that evaluated helmet performance in impact conditions that occur in NFL games. The NFL & NFLPA test each helmet under these conditions and rank the helmets according to their performance in the test. The performance in the test is based on how well the helmet reduces the risk of concussion in each of the test conditions. The helmet is scored in each test condition, and the scores are added to create a single helmet performance score. These results are posted on the NFL’s website and in all NFL locker rooms. This has been a significant motivation for helmet manufacturers to improve their helmet performance and implement NFL helmet design changes. Although each helmet manufacturer has their own unique approach to helmet technology and advancements, there are some themes that are consistent across new football helmets design: soft shells, new inner padding materials, and customization. I’ll discuss each of these categories of innovation inside NFL helmets.

Football helmets have had a hard outer shell since the 1970’s when the National Operating Committee on Standardization for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) created their football helmet standard (2). These hard shells with a minimal amount of padding (half inch or less) were effective in preventing severe brain injuries and deaths. As players got bigger and faster, the size of the helmets got bigger with more padding inside the hard shell. In the late 1990’s we also began to expect more from our helmets. We wanted them to reduce the risk of concussions. This further pushed the helmets to become larger with more padding materials and better padding materials. This has created helmets with an inch or more of padding materials inside the shell. This provides space for the outer shell to deform during an impact without contacting the head of the wearer. The added padding and increased stiffness of that padding allow the hard shell to deform and absorb additional impact forces. The helmet shell can act like a bumper in a car, although the helmet shell will return to its original state unlike your bumper might. Helmet manufacturers have all started to make helmet shells that are softer than the traditional hard shell. Riddell introduced a cutout on the forehead area of the Speedflex helmet in 2014 and have since added cutouts to the sides and rear of the Axiom helmet released in 2022. These create flexible sections in the outer helmet shell that deflect in an impact, absorbing energy, and return to their original position. The Vicis Zero1 helmet was developed with a deformable shell and released in 2017. It has been created to deflect, absorb energy and return regardless of where it is impacted. These are just a couple examples of how helmet shells have become softer in the last few years.

There is also a whole different product solution for making helmet shells soft: adding padding to the outside of the helmet. These are called helmet add-ons because they are universal padding systems that can be applied to the outside of any helmet. They can be added onto the helmet to provide more protection. These are often used during practice to further reduce the risk of injury during non-competition. One such product is the Guardian Cap NXT. This product was mandated by the NFL in 2022 during training camp for specific player positions (OL, DL, LB, RB). The NFL and NFLPA reported a significant reduction in concussions for these player positions during training camp. Although the Guardian Cap NXT and other helmet add-ons cannot be worn in games, they offer an innovative tool for reducing concussion risk in practice.

Inside the helmet shell there have been updates to the padding material and the incorporation of new helmet technology. At this point it’s not really accurate to call it padding material. Older helmets had thin layers of foam padding material. Today, football helmets inside have more material and that material is an engineered energy absorbing system. These include structures, non-Newtonian materials, liquid crystals, and more. These energy absorbing systems are designed to perform over a wide range of impact conditions. The reality is that most helmet impacts are low-speed and low-energy, so the energy absorbing system needs to be soft to absorb these types of impacts effectively. However, there are rare high-speed, high-energy impact events that occur in football and players need to be protected in these events as well. The energy absorbing system needs to be stiff to absorb high amount of energy in a small volume. Because of this need for both a soft and a stiff material, the inside of helmets have systems that work across this range. In some cases that system is a combination of materials. In other helmets, the system uses non-Newtonian materials which are soft at low speeds, and are stiff at high speeds. These materials are also called rate dependent materials because their stiffness depends on the rate they are loaded or impacted. Some helmets use a structure that is designed with sections of soft and stiff so as the structure is compressed, it can be effective across the range of expected impact conditions. Another novel material that is being tested in football helmets is liquid crystal elastomers. Impressio has developed this technology for medical implants to absorb energy in human joints, and are now adapting it into an energy absorbing system in football helmets. This material is soft to the touch, but when impacted the crystals inside the material rotate, align, and become stiff. The rotating back and forth requires energy that is dissipated from the impact energy.

These new helmet components make safer helmets for everyone who plays the game. Utilizing the shell to absorb energy and adding energy absorbing systems that work over a broad range have significantly advanced football helmet efficacy. The next advancement important advancement we have seen in the industry is the improvement of helmet fit to ensure these new technologies are most effective. Historically, helmets would be fit to an individual player by inflating an air bladder in the helmet until the padding was snuggly fit to the wearer’s head. This was an effective solution to have limited helmet sizes that fit a broad range of players. Unfortunately, the air bladder takes up space, but it does not absorb energy. Helmet manufacturers have developed different ways to replace that air bladder with something that absorbs energy and provides a great fit for the wearer. The simple version is to have pads of various thicknesses. The pads can be changed to fit the individual. The most advanced version is a custom inner helmet liner. Riddell has Precision-Fit helmets that have custom inner helmet liners for an individual player which were released in 2017. This technology is limited to elite players in the NFL and elite college programs. The liner is made by collecting a digital 3D scan of a player’s head. Then they fit that head shape into a 3D model of the helmet shell. The space between the player’s 3D head scan and the 3D model of the helmet shell defines the volume of the inner liner material. This volume is then split into sections, and those sections are 3D printed in structural energy absorbing systems.

Although we already have custom fit helmets, there is another type of customization that is being developed as well: position specific helmets. Currently all helmets are designed for players at all positions. So a quarterback would wear the same helmet that his offensive linemen wear. The NFL and other groups have done extensive research on the types of impacts that players at different positions receive. Based on this research, we know that different player positions experience different types of impacts, in location, severity, and frequency. The next development in football helmets will be position specific helmets. Vicis released the Trench model helmet that is designed for linemen (offensive and defensive) in 2021. It’s widely known that these players have low level head impacts at much higher frequency than any other position. These impacts are typically at the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball players on either side of the line impact each other. Those impacts are typically to the forehead area of the helmet. Vicis developed the Trench helmet to address these known frequent low energy forehead impacts by adding a forehead energy absorber tuned to these low energy impacts. The next position specific helmet might be a quarterback helmet that has a thicker back pad than other helmets to address head to ground impacts when they are sacked. Linemen don’t get impacts to the back of their helmets very often, but it is one of the most common impact locations for concussive impacts for quarterbacks. These position specific helmets will lead to more effective protection for each position and for every player.

There is another innovation in modern football helmet technology that drives all of the components that go into a modern helmet: computer modeling. We live in a digital world, and companies have been using computer models to develop products and innovate in the automotive and aerospace industries for years. New innovations can be designed and built virtually and then tested virtually as well. This has expedited the development process and reduced costs in creating new products and innovations. We have reached a point where that technology has become attainable for sports equipment, including football helmets. This has reduced the development duration from 7 years, down to 3 years for a typical new football helmet technology. The helmets, including innovative features can be created and tested virtually. Once the digital helmet design is completed, it can be placed on a digital model of the human head. The combined digital model of the helmet on the human head can be tested virtually by applying impact conditions to the combined digital model. How the combined digital model responds to the impact conditions in the digital world define the helmet’s ability to protect the wearer. The digital helmet model can be tweaked or modified and retested digitally. This provides a significant amount of iterative testing without having to create expensive tooling or 3D printing prototypes, saving significant time and money in the development process. This digital innovation in football helmet design has driven the rapid innovation we have seen in the last 5 years in football helmet technology and safety football helmets.

At SYZMIK, we have developed innovative soft shell helmet technology and protective headbands using digital models and testing. With our partnership with CORVID, we test all of our products digitally on the Caveman human model to determine each of the product’s efficacy in reducing the risk of injury (3). Unlike other computer head models, the Caveman model includes the whole human body including connective tissue and muscles. In our test conditions, we can tense the neck muscles in the Caveman model before the impact to accurately represent the human in the real-world. We’re using the cutting edge technology to develop and validate our soft shell products to ensure they offer the best protection in low profile, sleek designs.

We are also developing a novel hard shell football helmet at SYZMIK that will implement the innovations described above. The helmet will have a soft outer shell that can absorb energy while deforming and return back to its original shape. However, that outer shell will be unlike any of the existing football helmets. The SYZMIK football helmet will be divided into sections. These sections will move independently of one another and from the inner shell of the helmet. This design has proven to be effective in reducing rotational energy in lab tests and digital models. Reducing rotational energy is of great importance, because concussions are primarily caused by rotational motion. Digital models have shown that this design significantly reduces rotational head motion and the risk of concussion compared to traditional helmet shells. Additionally, the sections of the outer shell can be changed to create a position specific helmet based on a single helmet model. The inner padding material will be a novel material that optimizes the impact performance over a broad range of impact conditions. Our goal is to have the best impact performance in the NFL – NFLPA helmet test protocol, while having a low profile, sleek design. A true SYZMIK product that maintains the elite performance and design included in our soft shell products with the latest in football helmet technology and customization. Keep an eye out for this product to launch in 2025.

  1. https://www.nfl.com/playerhealthandsafety/equipment-and-innovation/engineering-technology/nfls-engineering-roadmap-driving-progress-toward-better-protective-equipment
  2. https://nocsae.org/
  3. https://www.corvidtec.com/caveman