Mechanical Engineering Researchers Developing New Football Helmet Prototype

Andrew Becnel, Hunter Gilbert and Genevieve Palardy holding a football helmetOctober 17, 2023 

BATON ROUGE, LA – In the winter of 2019, the National Football League hosted its Helmet Challenge Symposium in Youngstown, Ohio, bringing together 300 engineers, manufacturing experts, and innovators from across the country. The goal of that event was to foster collaboration among an array of experts in various fields, with the desired outcome being a safer football helmet.

Among the attendees was LSU Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Hunter Gilbert. He returned to LSU’s campus and soon began work on a prototype with LSU Assistant Professor Genevieve Palardy and former LSU Associate Professor Warren Waggenspack. More than three years later, the team is nearing delivery of that prototype for testing.

“We started working on our own ideas in 2020 after being introduced to the problem, and we’ve continued to work towards improving helmet performance since then,” Gilbert said. “We quickly realized that the problem extends far beyond American football, although that is probably the most visible market for the general public. The project’s goal is to produce a helmet that outperforms all other helmets on the market today, specifically regarding protection and isolation from head impacts.

“We intend to have a first prototype helmet incorporating new technology and ready for testing by summer of 2024. The design process is iterative, though, and we expect that what we learn from the testing of the first prototype will lead to additional [research and development] and further improvements.”

Since the team began work on its helmet, a new member has joined, Andrew Becnel, senior ME instructor at LSU. The group has also gotten assistance from Scott and Missy Rogers and the staff at Noble Plastics in Grand Coteau, La., in the form of input on the project and designing and manufacturing a custom testing apparatus. LSU Athletics staff Jack Marucci, Greg Stringfellow, and Nathan Lemoine have also been instrumental in helping the research team understand some of the important features and concerns related to football helmets, Gilbert said.

As for the makeup of the LSU ME research group, Gilbert provides expertise in dynamics and materials, Palardy in advanced composite materials, Waggenspack in modeling and engineering design, and Becnel in vibration and shock absorption.

“I joined the ME faculty in summer 2021, and not long after that, Hunter and Genevieve asked me to participate on the helmet project as co-PI,” Becnel said. “At the University of Maryland, I worked on energy absorbers for occupant protection systems and most recently, had been contributing to developing new materials and design strategies for 3D-printed structures, so this project was a natural fit.

“I’m identifying materials and structural configurations that might generate the ‘optimum’ response to impacts, based on simulation work Hunter and his grad students have done. Because of the tight geometric constraints, we’re taking a fundamentally different approach than other helmets, and one of the major challenges is matching real materials and structures to the theoretical optimum response.”

The helmet project is being funded by grants from the LSU Board of Supervisors via the LIFT2 program, the Louisiana Board of Regents via the Proof of Concept/Prototyping (PoC/P) program, and LaSPACE via the Graduate Student Research Assistance program. Gilbert said additional opportunities for funding and industry partnerships would be welcome to the team.

“We’re open to discussing new partnerships that can help us advance towards the ultimate goal of a commercially viable technology,” he added. “Support is welcomed in a variety of forms, ranging from expert advice to in-kind support and direct grant funding.

One peripheral aspect of this project that may not be as obvious as commercial applications or funding opportunities is its potential to act as a recruiting tool for LSU mechanical engineering. Gilbert said projects like this can challenge a prospective student’s pre-conceived idea about the type of work different sectors of engineering do.

“Some students who are interested in studying engineering may have a view that is informed mainly by the community that surrounds them and the local industries which happen to be near them,” he said. “However, mechanical engineers work in a wide variety of application areas and industries. For example, I’m formally trained as a mechanical engineer but my background in [research and development] is dominated by applications of mechanical engineering to either human health or robotics or both. So, while this project isn’t atypical for me, I do believe that the project offers students a view into a potential career field that might not be apparent to them at first.”

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Contact: Joshua Duplechain
Director of Communications