June 10, 2013 Updated: June 11, 2013 at 8:56 pm
In October 2009, Troy Fodemski of Colorado Springs came to a sudden realization as he watched an NFL player with a concussion get helped off the field:
"If they can install a microphone and speakers in helmets, why not a microprocessor to prevent concussions?" he wondered. "Someone must have thought of this before."
So the longtime Lockheed Martin engineer used his skills to develop technology that is poised to revolutionize helmet safety and reverse the national trend of increased concussions among athletes and the military. In 2011, Fodemski started Concussion Mitigation Technologies LLC, which has since garnered four patents for two helmets and related technology.
One patent, granted in December 2011 and now trademarked as "The Smart Helmet," is for a battery-powered microprocessor system that notes the location of the impact on the helmet and fills airbags in that spot from a refillable, pen-sized carbon dioxide cartridge. With data collected by technology under a second CMT patent, the microprocessor also anticipates where the brain will bounce inside the skull, and activates airbags at the secondary impact site - an important feature, because much of the damage occurs when the brain bounces off the interior of the skull following the initial hit. That additional injury results in tears and a disruption of neural pathways, which leads to headache, amnesia, confusion, nausea and slurred speech..
The reaction of the Smart Helmet from the initial blow to the firing of all airbags occurs in a span of 15 milliseconds.
A third patent measures the torque on the neck when someone receives a blow to the head.
"No one does that right now, and it will be a major development," said CMT chief engineer Wemimo Agbesola.
Further research resulted in a fourth patent, the "Electroconductive Nanogel Helmet," which uses a nanosponge inside the helmet walls to house and activate the airbags and microprocessor.
The start-up company, which has six part-time employees, including Fodemski, hopes to receive funding from a four-year, $60 million initiative by the NFL and General Electric that will award money to companies developing new imaging technology and other approaches to prevent, detect and manage traumatic brain injury and concussions. That money could go toward developing prototypes and paying the employees.
Fodemski said the company also is pursuing international patents, and some manufacturers, including Bell, are considering the Smart Helmet.
The technological need isn't just for adults. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that U.S. emergency rooms treated 173,000 traumatic brain injuries in 2010, including sports concussions for those 19 and younger.
Fodemski, who holds a master's degree in systems engineering from Southern California and continues to work for Lockheed, knows his ideas will not stop concussions but could mitigate the damage.
"That may never happen, but we know we can do better than the technology out there now," he said.