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WSW: WMU Students Develop Sensor That Could Help Assess Concussions

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Western Michigan University
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Football coaches could soon have access to instantaneous information about the severity and location of a blow to a player's head. 

A team of Western Michigan University Engineering students has developed the sensor can be placed in a football helmet and provide information immediately that could help determine if a player should stay in the game or be examined for possible signs of a concussion. 

Western Michigan University Electrical and Computer Engineering Masood Atashbar and doctoral student Binu Baby Narakathu spoke with WMUK's Gordon Evans about how the sensor was developed and its potential. 

The Engineering students had been working on physical sensors that could detect force and pressure. Atashbar say their research in "printed" technology led to an impact sensor that is "skin like". They developed the impact sensing technology for helmets, used in football and hockey. It can be used in other ways as well. 

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Mashood Atashbar and Binu Baby Narakathu explain how the sensor works

The Western team participated in a competition sponsored by the University of Michigan. Narakathu says it lasted six months, and Western's team was among the top eight finalists. Now they have formed a new company called SafeSense Technologies in hopes of brining the sensor to market. 

The sensor transmits information by wireless technology to a smartphone or other device. Narakathu says that can be especially helpful for treating athletes for impact to their head and possible concussions. He says they have a working prototype. Narakathu says they are looking for funding to make 20 to 25 sensors that could be provided to football teams. They want to use feedback from those teams to improve the sensor and make it ready for market. Western Michigan University is a potential client 

Atashbar says the device would give coaches real-time information about the location, direction and magnitude of impact on the head. He says it gives a 360 degree view of the head. Narakathu says parents could also monitor from the stands. He says a smartphone or other device could store data for multiple players. 

Narakathu says  existing helmets can be outfitted with the sensor. He says it is like another layer of skin on the head. In addition to football, the sensor can be used other sports like hockey and auto racing. Narakathu says it could also be used for the military to measure the impact of an explosion on a soldier's helmet. 

"That's going to be different when you put it into a helmet and you go out into a field and you get a real impact. So that's what we need to find out next."

Atashbar says more testing is needed to continue improving the sensor before it will be ready for market. Narakathu says they also have to ensure that the sensor can continue working through multiple hits to the head. He says that testing has been successful in the lab, but "that's going to be different when you put it into a helmet and you go out into a field and you get a real impact. So that's what we need to find out next."  

The engineering students are trying to raise more money for SafeSense Technologies, and are working with students in Western Michigan University's Haworth College of Business to develop a business plan for the helmet sensor. Narakathu says the students who trained in engineering are learning a lot about how to launch a business and market a product. 

Atashbar says other groups are working on similar devices. He says new players seem to be jumping into the game at every conference they attend. But Narakathu says other systems he has seen don't have the ability to show 3-D mapping of the impact, and aren't able to measure the magnitude of the force of a hit on the head. 

Gordon Evans became WMUK's Content Director in 2019 after more than 20 years as an anchor, host and reporter. A 1990 graduate of Michigan State, he began work at WMUK in 1996.