In 2016, the medical staff at United States Army Joint Base Lewis-McChord contacted VICIS at their offices in Seattle, Wash. Located just 40 miles north of Lewis-McChord, VICIS had recently been making waves in the football market with early development of new helmet technology designed to replace helmets with polycarbonate shells, foam, and air-bladder padding virtually all football players wore at the time.
The U.S. Army had a problem. Combat helmets hadn’t really changed much in many years, but the war-fighter had. Current combat helmets are generally optimized for ballistic protection, but most peacetime head injuries result from blunt force impact. The Army wanted an upgrade in head protection for its soldiers. VICIS decided to throw its hat in the ring.
“At the time, we wanted to stay focused on football because we were an emerging company,” says Dave Marver, CEO of VICIS. “But when we learned the extent of the problem within the Army, we felt compelled to help our servicemen and women. The Army has access to the best technology on the planet. Their decision to work with us is highly gratifying and validates what we’ve done in football.”
In May 2018, the new approach bore fruit. VICIS inked a contract to improve the safety of U.S. Army’s combat helmets. The helmet maker will work with U.S. Army researchers to find methods for replacing existing foam liner pads in combat helmets with impact mitigation technology evolved from technology the company created for its football helmets.
A parallel exists between football helmets and combat helmets that resonated for VICIS. While current combat helmets are optimized for ballistic protection, one could argue that traditional football helmets with polycarbonate shells were initially designed primarily to prevent skull fractures. VICIS knew it could do better with football helmets, so why not adapt the same theory to combat helmets.
“In football, we recognize that the legacy purpose of football helmets was in fact to prevent skull fracture, but we had a chance to start from scratch and develop a helmet that could address a modern and contemporary concern,” says Marver. “That’s why we’ve developed the multi-layered structure of the ZERO1 football helmet. It has a thin layer of polycarbonate on the innermost layer to protect against skull fracture, but also has advanced materials and structures to mitigate impact forces resulting from blunt impact.
“It’s the same approach with the military. The current helmet shell is optimized for ballistic protection, but we thought there was an opportunity to incorporate a more sophisticated pad structure that would improve the combat helmet’s performance against blunt impact.”
Many of the same engineering principles that were applied to the development of the VICIS ZERO1 football helmet have been adapted for use in the military combat helmet. (See Figure 1)
The columnar structure that comprises the ZERO1’s RFLX layer has been adapted for use in the combat helmet. There’s a direct relationship between the football helmet technology and the combat helmet technology.
“Part of the challenge of developing the ZERO1 was designing a helmet that would yield upon impact and then bounce right back,” says Marver. “The football helmet exhibits the same behavior as a car bumper — or a crumple zone — but unlike a car, you can’t take a football helmet to a body shop after a collision. So, we selected materials and developed structures that could be impacted thousands of times, bounce back to their original form within milliseconds — invisible to the naked eye — and exhibit that behavior at the temperature extremes seen in football, from Green Bay to Phoenix. All of what we learned from football is now being applied to the combat helmet and adapted for the specific requirements of the warfighter.”
The RFLX layer wasn’t the only layer adapted to the combat helmet, either. VICIS also developed a transition membrane and military grade foam, because comfort and fit are an important contributor to safety.
“We took the same approach with the Army, where we’re developing a pad set that’s very comfortable, provides a very good fit, and can fit a wide range of warfighters, so they can all benefit from improved protection,” says Marver.
Adaptation Breeds Success
While everything seemed to be a direct correlation from football helmet to combat helmet, developing this new technology did not come without unique challenges. For example, VICIS will not be building the entire helmet. They are developing the pad set that comprises the interior of the helmet, which then must be retrofitted into existing combat helmets.
On top of that, VICIS has taken a new approach to development. When building the ZERO1, VICIS was able to target the elite athletes of the NFL using their feedback and iterative development. With the Army, the company requires a more “bottom-up” approach. Instead of starting with the elite special forces, they would need to potentially improve protection for millions of soldiers from the onset. It’s an approach that requires flexibility in terms of manufacturing and a different way of thinking about research and development.
“In 2016, we were an emerging company,” says Marver. “To be responsible, we wanted to fulfill our first mission, which was to get new football technology out to market as quickly as possible. We didn’t want to undertake too massive a project with the military. We also recognized that the current combat helmets have years of testing in terms of ballistic protection, environmental conditions and more. We thought the most pragmatic approach and the quickest way we could potentially benefit the most servicemen and servicewomen was to target improvement of the interior liner.
“At VICIS, we have a commitment that we will not enter a new category unless we can clearly demonstrate with independent, third-party data, that our technology is superior to what’s out there today. We’ve done that in football and we’re committed to doing that in the military, and every new category we enter in the future.”
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For VICIS, it is exciting to see that their initial and continued investment in research and development is opening doors to other markets. Good engineering is adaptable, and VICIS helmets appear to be using some of the best.
“Our strength as a company is our engineering group,” says Marver. “They have a special ability to develop structures that mitigate impact effectively. They’ve demonstrated that in football, and I think the market will see they will also demonstrate that with the military and other categories in sports. For us, it’s about fulfilling our mission and protecting as many young athletes — and now war-fighters — as possible.”
This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor of AFCA Magazine and AFCA Insider. Follow him on Twitter at Football Coach Daily.