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No Small Feat: Nature's Potential Design for a Better Football Helmet

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No Small Feat: Nature's Potential Design for a Better Football Helmet

[Author's note: I'm a biology professor during my day job. One of the central themes in biology is structure and function. Through natural selection, form and function have been tweaked and enhanced. The winning designs mean survival; the losing designs mean extinction. We copy many of the winning designs.]


Multiple concussions.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

These phrases have dominated football discussions in recent years. What was once treated with smelling salts, aspirin, and a slap on the butt before re-entering the game, has now forever changed how the game of football is played and evaluated.

New rules, such as concussion protocols, heads-up football, targeting penalties, defenseless player safeguards, and even improved helmet designs have attempted to make the game safer. 

Have they made the game safer?

I think at this point the jury is still out. The efforts shouldn't stop here, and research must continue. In the meantime, some players, such as Chris Borland, have said the risk of head trauma cannot be mitigated by the fame and riches associated with professional football and have retired.

No doubt engineers and physicists are hard at work attempting to put equations and mock helmets in computer simulators trying to develop a helmet that can reduce the chances of concussions.

However, some of the designs that have best benefited humanity didn't arise in a computer or on an engineer's draughting table.

They came from nature itself.

We modeled our airplanes after birds. The honeycomb, which shows tremendous strength-to-weight ratios, is one of nature's favorite shapes and is found in bee hives, algae, and bones. Serrated knives come from dinosaur and shark teeth. Our best antibiotics are copies of natural molecules found in fungus and bacteria.

The list goes on and on.

So, it should be no surprise that one of the best designs of shock absorption also comes from a natural template.

A biology-themed webpage recently posted the results of a research article outlining how the mantis shrimp has an ingenious adaptation to reduce shear waves. The webpage suggests this shrimp design could lead to safer football helmets.

That's right, a shrimp. The animal named after the synonym for small.

The mantis shrimp is a predator, and one of its favorite foods is clams. They use a dactyl club to smash open clam shells, and they approach forces of 10,000 G!

A dactyl club is essentially a sledgehammer for a hand on the end of a powerful arm with the sole purpose of smashing. It's nature's Mjolnir, which is Thor's hammer.

When they accelerate quickly into a hard object, shear waves could reverberate through the shrimp cause damage to the shrimp unless they have a design to reduce or eliminate the violent recoil.

The article says:

The findings could allow researchers to use similar filtering principles for the development of new types of composite materials for applications including aerospace and automotive frames, body armor and athletic gear, including football helmets.

“This is a novel concept,” said David Kisailus, the Winston Chung Endowed Professor in Energy Innovation at UC Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering. “It implies that we can make composite materials able to filter certain stress waves that would otherwise damage the material.”

The video above shows the absolute trauma this shrimp is exposing itself to get a meal. It turns out, however, that the mantis shrimp uses helicoidal structures to filter out the shear waves, reducing the dangerous stress to itself. The structures are designed to not only filter out a single blow, but repeated blows while the shrimp attempts to pry open its dinner.

The helix, or spiral, is also one of nature's favorite shapes. It's what gives DNA, some shells, algae, plants, and viruses their tremendous strength.

It appears to be nature's shock absorber, too.

This sounds a lot like it might apply to football concussions. Violent blows to the head cause shear waves through the brain, which can cause concussion. Repeated trauma can make the next concussion debilitating. Repeated concussions can be deadly.

No one can remove violent collisions from the game. Penalties can reduce them, but the risk is always there. So, good shock absorption is desperately needed.

While this design may or may not be practical for football helmets, it's nice to see this out-of-the-box thinking that may hopefully offer a solution to make the game safer.

If history is any indication, don't bet against nature. Many wonderful answers are found there. Nature has had millions, if not billions, of years to tweak designs. It knows more than we do about these things.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (17) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

PackerBacker's picture

Great article. Out of the box compared to what's normally on the website (I love that stuff too). Nice to see a mixup of blog ideas.
Well written.
Also a really cool idea. Hope they can find something that will help eliminate the damage all those hits do to players brains.

Jay Hodgson's picture

Thank you!

Alex Tallitsch's picture

We need that shrimp on D.

Jay Hodgson's picture

He has a future at middle linebacker.

BradHTX's picture

I'm pretty sure I can read "Dantzler" on that shrimp's back...

RCPackerFan's picture

That shrimp would be fined and suspended for unnecessary roughness.

J0hn Denver's Gavel's picture

Great article! Fractal helicoidal structures, like conch shells, have amazing wave dispersive properties. It makes a lot of sense to look into incorporating this form into helmets. It'll be interesting to see how they do it, design- wise.

Jay Hodgson's picture

I'm always impressed with the shapes and designs that work so well in nature.

Idiot Fan's picture

Very interesting article. I've been harboring the fear for a while now that the football we know and love won't exist in 20 years as more information about the damage it causes comes to light. It's great to see potential solutions. I'm also intrigued by the notion that players play so recklessly because they are so padded. Anybody know if rugby players have the same issues as football players?

Jay Hodgson's picture

I've always wondered that myself. Back in the old leatherhead days, helmets were meant to protect against glancing blows and prevent ears from getting ripped off. Football was never intended to be played with people launching themselves head-first as missiles. I think the facemask plays a lot into that as well.

I'm sure the padding makes players take more risks and play more violently. Remember when we all played backyard football? None of us had pads or helmets. We didn't spear and lunge head-first. We took care of our bodies to some extent because we knew mom would ground us for life if we came back with broken teeth or bones.

TheLegendary52's picture

Fantastic article Jay, great to have you aboard the CHTV team. Personally, though I absolutely see the benefit of studying nature to improve technology, I feel the solutions to the concussion issue in the NFL lay in the past. As you pointed out, the game was different in the days of the leatherheads. The game involved skill, and not mere brute force. In today's game, tackling is becoming a lost art, nearly extinct. Were the NFL to go back to padded leather (or a synthetic variation thereof) helmets and shoulder pads, and focus training upon actual tackling, I believe we would all witness a safer, yet more exciting NFL. Players would be forced to be more aware of the way they play, for their own safety. Gone would be the "spears" and missile like attacks. Sure tacklers would become the stars of the defense. And offensive players that can shake off, or power through those tackles would be our greatest heroes.

Jay Hodgson's picture

Thanks! It's great to be a part of CHTV.

croatpackfan's picture

Wonderful article Jay... As always all of the answers is there, around us. In the Nature. Nature already answer most of the questions...

Jay Hodgson's picture

Thanks! And I'm glad you followed us over from ALLGBP.

shmelbs's picture

Excellent article. I'd love to see conceptual designs of a "shrimp helmet." Hopefully it wouldn't like one of these:

J0hn Denver's Gavel's picture


Jay Hodgson's picture

I'm all for a helmet you can eat after the game.

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