UMass seniors create concussion analyzing helmet

By Aviva Luttrell

Aviva Luttrell/Collegian

Wires, computer chips and various other electronic parts cluttered the nearly unoccupied rows of Marcus Hall basement laboratory workstations at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a recent Thursday evening. Among the mishmash of components and equipment sat four students focused intently on the prototype in front of them. With their April 8 deadline looming, the group was making the final adjustments to their Senior Design Project: a football helmet fitted with a real-time concussion analyzer.

The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering requires all undergraduates to complete this yearlong capstone project. Working in teams of three or four with a $500 budget, students are tasked with designing and testing a system of their choice. Past projects have ranged from assistive robots to wireless electronic drumsticks.

“It’s our chance to apply what we know and learn even more,” senior computer engineering major Scott Rosa said, who along with Kenny Van Tassell, Tim Coyle and Justin Kober make up Team RCA, which stands for Real-time Concussion Analyzer.

Rosa, Van Tassell, Coyle and Kober got together as a group their junior year.

“We knew everybody’s work style, and it seemed like a good fit,” Kober said.

At the time, the National Football League was the target of a lawsuit by former players who accused the NFL of failing to provide information linking football-related head injuries to brain damage, permanent memory loss and other long-term health issues. After tossing around a few ideas, the students decided to design a device that would wirelessly alert football coaches and trainers when a player experiences an impact severe enough to cause a concussion. The Real-time Concussion Analyzer collects impact data from collisions, which is then analyzed by a concussion detection algorithm in real time. Results are reported wirelessly through an Android app to coaches on the sideline.

During the team’s preliminary research, Rosa came across a paper by professor Steve Rowson of the Virgina Tech-Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics. The paper presented research correlating rotational acceleration of a player’s head to risk of concussion.

“That was really our basis to start everything,” Rosa said.

Rowson’s research used data from a system known as the Head Impact Telemetry (HIT) System, produced by the company Simbex, along with a helmet of his own design. Because Team RCA had limited time and resources, its members based much of their project on Rowson’s research, and applied his risk equation to their own helmet.

Coyle contacted Rowson, and explained Team RCA’s plans.

“He seemed pretty excited about it,” said Kober.

Rowson gave the team feedback on its design, as well as suggestions on how the students could use their time most effectively.

The HIT System, which Rowson used in much of his research, is all about measurement and collection – there is no diagnostic aspect – a feature of Team RCA’s helmet that sets it apart from similar models already on the market.

Team RCA’s product is also more user-friendly than the HIT System.

“Their receiver is a monstrous device,” Kober said. “It’s about the size of this computer,” he said, gesturing to the tower sitting on the desk next to him. “Our receiver is a phone. Everybody has one, so that takes away a lot of cost right there.”

With the server set up to interface with Android devices, parents, coaches and doctors would be able to log in and look at the information. Data collected from the helmet is also stored in an online database for easy review.

The team decided that its main focus would be on high school and Pop Warner football teams, since these programs typically do not have the resources to dedicate to concussion research and prevention. Team RCA’s system costs $96 per player while similar systems on the market cost up to $5,000 per helmet.

Young players are also at a higher risk for concussions than professional players because their bodies are still developing.

“They’re more prone (to concussions) when they’re growing up,” said Coyle.

A 2006 study by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control found that 47 percent of high school football players sustain a concussion each season and 35 percent of players said they had more than one in the same season, according to a 2011 article by the Capital News Service.

Throughout the year, each member of Team RCA has played a unique part in designing and creating their product. Van Tassell, the only group member familiar with the Android system, created the app. Rosa had the most experience with coding. Coyle was interested in the communication aspect of the product, and Kober worked most closely with the sensors in the helmet.

“We all kind of fell into our roles,” Rosa said.

The group agreed that creating specifications for the product was one of the hardest parts of the entire process. The team ultimately decided that the helmet cannot increase the weight of a player’s equipment by more than five percent; response time of the system must be no more than two seconds; the system must not be affected by interference; and the product will have a maximum effective range of 150 meters.

Recently, Coyle demonstrated the team’s nearly finished product by hitting the helmet with a rubber mallet. The rest of the group watched as the smartphone lying on the desk next to them lit up, displaying the data from the impact. On a nearby computer screen, Rosa was observing a 3-D graph, which pinpointed the exact location of the impact on the helmet. Although the team will not be able to fully incorporate this feature into its final product due to time limitations, a 3-D model would allow medical professionals to narrow symptoms and/or treatment of an individual based on where on the head the impact occurred. The team still hopes to showcase it to the public on Demo Day, which is set to take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 20 in the Gunness Engineering Student Center and M5 in Marcus Hall.

Another of Team RCA’s creations will also be making an appearance at the event.

Dubbed “Drew Bledskull” by the group, a replica human skull will model the helmet. Team RCA plans to dress the dummy in a Drew Bledsoe NFL jersey and shoulder pads. In order to make “Bledskull” as life-like as possible, the kinesiology department advised the group to wrap the head in bubble wrap, since it approximates human skin and hair. They also filled the skull with sand to give it the weight of a human head. A spring serves as the neck and spine.

For Team RCA, experimenting through trial and error has been the best part of the process.

“It’s gratifying to fail and then succeed,” Kober said, adding that, “It’s been challenging.”

“There have been times when we’ve been at each other’s throats,” said Rosa, who has been working in the lab until nearly 3 a.m. every night for the past week.

“I think it’s worth it,” Van Tassell said  “(It’s gratifying to get) closer and closer to a product that can be something real.”

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected]