Helmet Lab

Virginia Tech Helmet Lab located in Kelly Hall, Oct. 14 2022.

While the window in Kelly Hall looking out towards the outdoor stairs of Turner Place may look unsuspecting, there is ground-breaking, life saving research that takes place behind it.

The Helmet Lab is an injury biomechanics research lab at Virginia Tech founded by Stefan Duma, Ph.D., and Steve Rosen, Ph.D., in 2007. They started with just 4,000 data points and a small team. Fast-forward to the present, a team of undergraduate and graduate student engineers led by directors Barry Miller, Ph.D., and Mark Begonia, Ph.D., continue to design interventions to prevent any sort of injury. This includes preventative injury testing in children’s toys, sport helmets, rugby mouthguards and drone impact risk.

Although the lab is most known for helmet testing, it does not design or produce helmets. Instead, helmet manufacturers from around the world send their helmets to have them rated using the Helmet Lab’s patented five-star rating system. The lab sends the respective companies their results, and from there, the company decides if they want to re-adjust the design or keep the helmet how it is.

“Just because you buy a helmet that does pass the standard safety tests, that does not mean you are not still at great risk for a concussion,” Miller said. “Consumers want to know what helmets barely passed the standards and which ones passed with flying colors.”

The five-star rating system was created after four years of data collection starting in 2007. The Helmet Lab website details their early stages of the process which included inserting wireless sensors into football helmets to measure any impact on the field. Any intense level of force above a certain threshold would trigger the sensors to detect movement and rotation of the head in case of a concussion.

 “Before the five-star rating system, consumers had no idea which helmets were more effective just because there was no way to compare, and this was an issue in several sports,” Miller said. “Standard rating systems of helmets on the market are used as the bare minimum pass/fail safety standards for sportswear.”

Before the Helmet Lab became involved, equestrian helmets were just being certified by pass/fail standards. Concussions cases were extremely high; parents and athletes in the sport were in search of safer helmets. Equestrian helmet companies started to send their helmets to the Helmet Lab in search of supplemental safety tests. Since then, several companies have taken those results and started creating safer, better helmets. 

“Manufacturers come to us. They want that Virginia Tech five-star rating certification on their helmets because people know our system works,” Miller said.

Miller and Begonia joined the helmet lab team four years ago and both have continued to keep up with the constant advancement of sports technology. They both discussed their ventures into new areas of injury-prone testing, from Nerf Guns to drones. It is all for a common purpose; to serve the public as a land-grant research institution, and their visions continue to evolve.

“I have a young daughter,” Begonia said. “I would love to see more testing equipment representation, such as testing mannequins being specialized for youths and females so we may be as accurate as possible.”

If you are interested in learning more about the lab and the research being done, check out their website at https://www.helmet.beam.vt.edu

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