A Valley defense contractor hopes to make U.S. soldiers a little safer with an electronic device fitted inside their helmets that will measure blasts and other forces that their heads receive in combat.
And the system won't be tested under any simulated conditions - soldiers are expected to be wearing the helmets on actual patrols in Iraq this summer, according to an official of BAE Systems, the developer of the technology.
"This is the real world," said Sean Martin, director of business development for the company's Individual Equipment operations in south Phoenix, where the devices were developed and being produced. "We will be able to see the forces that they are exposed to, to let engineers for the Army and defense contractors design better helmets."
Called the Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic System, or HEADS, the state-of-the-art device consists of a circuit board encased in a plastic shell only one-fourth of an inch thick that is molded to the shape of the helmet. A thick pad fits over the device so it isn't noticeable to the wearer.
Included in the thin package is an accelerometer and pressure sensor to record the severity of impacts to the head. It also includes a microdata recorder, rechargeable battery and USB port to download the data.
The data recovered from HEADS could accelerate research on treatment of head injuries as well as help scientists design more protective helmets, Martin said.
The geometry of the outer shell and materials used in the interior padding and chin straps are among the features that could be enhanced to provide better protection, he said.
BAE Systems has delivered the first 5,500 units to the U.S. Army for distribution to soldiers in the 4th Infantry Division. Potentially every combat soldier in the Army could receive one if the Pentagon decides to order more, Martin said.
"As electronics become smaller, we can put more capability in the unit," he said. "There could be biometric feedback for heart rate, breathing and temperature measurements to determine how a soldier performs in the field. Or they could give the position of the soldier, allowing us to track them. It's putting intelligence in the helmet."
Any major order on an Armywide scale would greatly expand the company's need for employees at the Phoenix plant, at Baseline Road and 46th Street, he said.
But BAE Systems is facing competition from Med-Eng, a Canadian-based company that has developed a rival system that fits on the outside of the helmet. The Army will evaluate both before deciding if it wants more units, Martin said.