By now, everyone interested in sports-based brain injuries is well aware of the contentious debate about the effectiveness of helmets in preventing TBI. While big organizations and decreasing numbers of researchers argue that helmets can protect players from traumatic brain injury, more and more scientists are arguing that helmets only protect against skull injuries, not injuries caused by the rattling of the brain within the skull.
What you probably don’t know, is how these tests are done. Most attempts to research the topic turn up only a few articles, all of which focus on in helmet sensors. Those sensors are only half the story, however, and the other half is way more interesting, as Gizmodo pointed out recently. While the sensors read impacts back to computers, none of the testing is possible without impact drop testing machines, and they are strangely fun to watch being used.
Impact drop machines are almost exactly what they sound like. They are machines made to repeatedly drop an object (in this case a mold of a head wearing a helmet filled with sensors) in identical ways with the same amount of force every time. It replicates the hits players may be receiving on the field in the way necessary to the scientific testing of the helmets.
Seeing these machines doesn’t tell us much about the actual arguments about helmet efficiency in protecting athlete’s brains, but research consensus is enough to tell us that relying on a helmet to keep you brain injury free isn’t a great plan. Going without a helmet is an even worse solution however. While helmets don’t appear to be able to stop concussions, they do protect against skull and neck injuries which can be just as dangerous to players if they aren’t using proper protective gear.
You can see the impact drop machine in action starting about 45 seconds in to the video below.