With support from a grieving father and injury prevention researchers, two Johns Hopkins engineering students have designed and fabricated a new whitewater recreation helmet to better protect rafters and kayakers from life-threatening head injuries. The prototype and specifications will be patented by a nonprofit foundation that plans to mass-produce and sell the headgear at cost. Injury prevention experts also hope the project will bolster efforts to adopt stronger safety standards for whitewater helmets, similar to those in place for bicycle helmets and other sports gear.
The issue was brought to the attention of Johns Hopkins by Gil Turner, a Park City, Utah, resident whose 22-year-old son, Lucas Brandon Turner, died in 1998 while kayaking on the Payette River in Idaho. “He was an expert whitewater kayaker, but somehow he was thrown into the river,” Turner said. “The force of the water pushed him head-first into a large boulder. He would have survived if his helmet had stayed in place, but it slipped backward and exposed his forehead. He sustained a fatal blow to the center of his forehead.” The incident led Turner, a retired businessman, to found the Whitewater Research and Safety Institute, which co-funded the safer helmet development project with the Center for Injury Research and Policy at The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The job of designing and fabricating the whitewater helmet was handed to two seniors enrolled in the Department of Mechanical Engineering's Senior Design Project course: Michael Cordeiro, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering major from Easton, Md., and Chang Lee, 22, of Atlanta, who was completing a dual major in biomedical engineering and engineering mechanics.
The undergraduates were asked to study head injuries that occurred in whitewater sports and to design a helmet that would better absorb shocks and prevent injuries. The helmet had to be lightweight (less than 30 ounces), buoyant in water and durable enough to survive repeated collisions with hard objects. It required straps that would hold the helmet in place even in fast-moving water. It had to cost less than $30 per helmet to manufacture and be comfortable and aesthetically pleasing enough to appeal to whitewater enthusiasts.
The year-long project concluded this month when Cordeiro and Lee unveiled a prototype helmet and subjected it to several tests designed to replicate whitewater conditions. The undergraduates attached the helmet to a dummy head, marked its position, then blasted it with a high-pressure fire hose that unleashed water moving at about 30 mph. The straps held the helmet firmly in place, indicating it should continue to protect a wearer’s head, even in a fast-moving river. The students also assembled an impact-test apparatus to mimic a high-speed collision between the helmet and a rock. Their test indicated the prototype helmet should absorb enough energy to prevent a serious head injury.
Much of the helmet’s protective power comes from three layers of EVA foam installed inside the shell. Each layer consists of a different density of closed-cell material, which will not absorb water if the wearer falls into a stream. The shell is made of rugged ABS plastic. Plastic head coverings are usually produced through an expensive molding process. But Cordeiro and Lee dramatically reduced the cost of their prototype helmet by using a high-tech rapid prototyping machine, which applies the plastic in a computer-guided shape through a process that resembles three-dimensional ink-jet printing. Ultimately, they spent only $5,400 to design, fabricate and test their prototype helmet.
“It was really rewarding to see it come together,” said Lee. “We got what we were looking for, what we were designing for.” Added Cordeiro: “This was a research project where we actually got to see something important come out of it – a product that could save people’s lives.”
Currently no industry nor government safety standards exist for whitewater helmets in the United States, said Michael Ho, a Center for Injury Research and Policy staff member who monitored the students’ efforts. “Our center co-sponsored this project because we wanted to show that it is possible to design and construct a helmet for whitewater use that adhered to standards that we asked the students to develop through their research,” Ho said. “The statistics related to whitewater injuries are unreliable, but we do know that among the fatal cases, the mechanism of death tends to be a combination of impact to the head and drowning. The whitewater industry and the people who enjoy these sports need to begin talking about standards for a helmet that could do a better job of preventing such injuries.”
The safer whitewater helmet was one of 11 Johns Hopkins projects completed this year by undergraduates in the Senior Design Project course. The class is taught by Andrew F. Conn, a Johns Hopkins graduate with more than 30 years of experience in public and private research and development. Each team of two or three students, working within budgets of up to $10,000, had to design a device, purchase or fabricate the parts, and assemble the final product. Corporations, government agencies and nonprofit groups provided the assignments and funding. The course is traditionally a well-received hands-on engineering experience for Johns Hopkins undergraduates.
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