Imagine a helmet that can improve situational awareness for SWAT teams storming a building by displaying navigational maps and bird’s-eye views that warn them of movement outside. Or a military helmet with foam that can sense—and brace for—an explosion.
At the simplest level, the purpose of a helmet is to prevent catastrophic injury to a wearer’s brain. But research is paving the way for technology to not only drastically improve protection but enhance helmets in ways that could revolutionize warfare and policing.
Let’s take a look at some groundbreaking advances being made in helmet technology, including “smart” innovations that loom on the horizon.
Early combat helmets were heavy, uncomfortable, and did little to stop bullets. Image source: Public Domain
U.S. soldiers donned the first official helmets in the years leading up to World War I. Made of simple pressed steel, these early incarnations were prohibitively heavy. And while they offered some protection against flying debris, they did little to stop bullets. The heavy steel also made it impractical to cover a soldier’s ears.
A newer generation of combat headgear—the M1 helmet, not-so-affectionately nicknamed “the steel pot”—marginally improved head protection from World War II through the Vietnam War. Its manganese steel shell fared slightly better against flying shrapnel and extended farther down the sides and back of a soldier’s head. But it remained heavy and uncomfortable and certainly didn't provide much protection against bullets.
The equation finally changed with the advent of synthetic materials like Kevlar. In the 1980s, U.S. Army soldiers sported the first synthetic helmet: the Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops (PAGST). Both lightweight and strong, this headgear offered reliable protection against handgun bullets for the first time. It also provided real blunt impact protection by replacing webbing suspension systems with padding systems that sit between the helmet shell and the wearer’s head.
In the decades since, evolving research has continued to develop materials with the twin goals of increasing ballistic and blunt protections while reducing weight. Soldiers may wear helmets up to 18 hours a day in training and combat situations. Over time, heavy weight can cause a great deal of fatigue and stress on the body that impact overall effectiveness.
By the mid-2000s, the Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH) was the helmet of choice among U.S. ground forces—offering better bullet resistance than the PAGST at a lighter weight. The Army’s ACH Gen II contract fielded a new generation of helmets that utilize high-density polyethylene fibers to drop weight by an average of 24%.
The military took protection to the next level by issuing Enhanced Combat Helmets (ECH) to soldiers in high-threat situations like Iraq. The ECH is about the same weight as a standard ACH but offers better ballistic and blunt impact protection.
Read our blog, “Tactical Helmets: Testing & Ballistic Protection Levels,” to understand how to choose the helmet that offers the protection you need in military or law enforcement situations.
Image source: the Naval Postgraduate School
Looking like something straight from a sci-fi movie, the next generation of ballistic Army helmets doubles down on the military’s efforts to prevent serious head trauma.
Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) emerged as the most prevalent danger during the War on Terror, with U.S. service members suffering nearly 414,000 TBIs between 2000 and 2019, according to The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC). Closed head injuries were considered the “signature wound” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, often leading to long-term mental and physical problems.
In 2019, the U.S. Army officially issued the first round of Integrated Head Protection System (IHPS) helmets to members of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
While the ECH most soldiers rely on in high-threat situations is rugged, the IHPS is the first combat helmet with the capability to protect a wearer’s entire head. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan made it clear that a soldier’s face and jaw require greater protection in modern combat situations as grave injuries resulted from improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The IHPS offers the same level of ballistic protection as ECH gear. But Army project managers claim it doubles blunt impact protection while adding passive hearing protection and decreasing weight by about 5%. The helmet also features a removable rail system for mounting accessories and a boltless retention system that eliminates the need to drill holes for chin straps that can weaken the shell.
The IHPS is part of the Army’s new, six-part Soldier Protection System designed to increase protection for the eyes, head, torso, and pelvic regions while decreasing or maintaining weight.
Yet, even as the IHPS starts to roll out to combat zones, new research aims to improve helmet safety capabilities further. Army scientists have developed a process for molding the IHPS so it is 40% lighter and defeats common rifle threats without an add-on plate. They are also working on an accessory mount that would eliminate its only drilled hole, plus aiming to add tech that can gauge head trauma suffered by the wearer.
Advances in 3D printing have also helped Army researchers create new helmet padding made from highly-tuned open-cell lattice structures. Initial testing shows that the padding could reduce the likelihood of head injury in combat and recreational helmets, performing 27% better than the highest-rated foam pads. The open-cell design further increases comfort and breathability by dissipating heat away from the head.
Of course, as helmet technology advances, so do many of the threats military and law enforcement personnel face.
"We're going to do our best to provide you the equipment that you need to go out there and fight and return," proclaimed Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts, head of Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier, at a military event spotlighting the IHPS in 2019. PEO Soldier is the governmental organization responsible for rapid prototyping, procurement, and fielding of equipment for U.S. soldiers.
Infusing helmets with smart technology will take protective headgear to another level—with the potential to give wearers equipment that is both safer and more user-friendly.
Many of the smart capabilities now available on high-end helmets designed for recreational activities like motorcycling could bring game-changing benefits to combat and law enforcement situations. Current technologies like built-in navigation, cameras that eliminate blind spots with 360 degrees of visibility, and automatic SOS calls can improve situational awareness and help soldiers and police avoid danger.
In 2017, Army researchers announced plans to incorporate augmented reality (A.R.) heads-up displays in smart helmets as part of a program to use intuitive technology. The research falls under a new development strategy called asymmetric vision/decide faster (AVDF), which aims to enable quicker, more-informed decision-making in the field by integrating various technologies.
Marines train for urban combat at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, CA. A new Army initiative looks to use smart helmets to overcome challenges caused by warfare's increasingly urban nature. Image source: U.S. Department of Defense
Soldiers face unique challenges as more fighting occurs in dense urban environments. Smart helmets with A.R. displays could provide unprecedented situational awareness, whether wearers are preplanning missions, en route to the target, or on the scene.
AVDF aims to create A.R. helmets that work with advanced communications gear plus virtual reality tech that provides the stream of information soldiers need to maneuver urban battlegrounds. The technology also aims at automatically prioritizing information to ensure critical data is immediately seen.
For instance, soldiers who need to enter a structure and access the rooftop could instantly receive a building map highlighting the optimal route on the helmet's A.R. display. The technology could also help them see through doors and indicate potential dangers. And soldiers could instantaneously gather and pass along networked targeting data that helps comrades provide cover.
Rapid target acquisition is a key feature in development, enabling soldiers to use transparent helmet displays to see where their rifle sight is set. Built-in navigation can also allow soldiers to seamlessly reorient if preplanned paths are blocked and gain a strategic advantage by utilizing less-trafficked routes.
The Army has announced a rough goal of debuting a demo of its AVDF technologies by 2026.
In the meantime, other research continues to open the door for technology to play a more prominent role in tactical helmets. Here are some of the most interesting smart helmet innovations happening around the world:
The Indian Army has tasked researchers with developing smart helmets that will turn its soldiers into what it boasts will be “self-contained fighting machines.” The plan calls for spatial awareness capabilities like thermal imaging, night vision, and a heads-up display in the visor. The headgear will also attempt to use geotagging tech to help wearers distinguish between friend and foe and quickly identify vehicles and other objects in the field.
Israeli smart helmet technology makes it easier to fly mission helicopters in low-visibility conditions. Image source: DVIDS
Low-flying missions with poor visibility up the risk of helicopters suffering catastrophic encounters with difficult terrain, enemy fire, and utility wires in the flight path. Israel-based Elbit Systems created BriteNite to enable pilots to safely fly on pitch-dark nights and in poor conditions like inclement weather, brownouts, whiteouts, and sandstorms.
The BriteNite system uses multi-directional Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) to help users see clearly at night, providing panoramic display data to smart helmets that can be worn by multiple pilots. The system also contains preloaded terrain and obstacle information enhanced by 3D conformal and intuitive symbology.
In 2019, BriteNite was deployed for use on a NATO country’s air force helicopters. And in 2020, Elbit Systems’ U.S. subsidiary was awarded a $50 million contract to provide helicopter systems to the U.S. Army.
In 2019, Taiwanese smart helmet maker JARVISH Inc. got the green light to move forward with an Augmented Reality smart combat helmet system for the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense’s Digital Tactical AR Project.
The helmet aims to improve situational awareness for front-line soldiers and combat commanders. It includes features like a transparent heads-up display, AI-assisted threat detection and situational awareness, a night vision camera, patent-pending “super optical” performance, long-range broadband ad hoc communication, and a long-lasting battery.
The helmet prototype was developed over three years to meet the project’s specifications. The requirement calls for several hundred thousand systems to be issued to the Taiwanese Army.
JARVISH has been selling smart helmets for motorcycles since 2017.
Hearing loss poses a serious occupational hazard for soldiers exposed to significant amounts of high-volume noise during tours of duty. A single gunshot can produce sound at 140 to 170 decibels—and it only takes a short exposure to levels exceeding 140 decibels for permanent hearing damage to occur.
Hearing loss and tinnitus (high-pitched ringing in the ears) represent the top two service-connected disabilities addressed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.), impacting more than 1.25 million and nearly 2 million veterans, respectively.
In the U.K., researchers have started working on smart combat helmets that can help prevent hearing loss. Nottingham Trent University’s Advanced Textiles Research Group developed microelectromechanical system microphones (MEMS) capable of measuring noise levels for extended periods.
University researchers now have a grant to develop a prototype helmet with a microphone knitted into its cover fabric above each ear. By recording and measuring the levels of noise soldiers experience in the field, the university aims to provide the data necessary to protect hearing in future smart combat helmets.
Hearing loss is a significant risk for combat soldiers due to the substantial exposure to noise at high decibels. Image source: DVIDS
U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots are gaining tactical advantages with JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems), which project critical flight and navigation information onto their helmet visors.
JHCMS combines a magnetic head tracker with the visor display, giving pilots a targeting device that can aim sensors and weapons wherever they’re looking. In a dual-seat aircraft, each crew member can wear a JHMCS helmet and perform independent operations while staying continuously aware of where the other crew member is looking.
Smart helmets are also helping police at Bishop International Airport in Michigan keep passengers with coronavirus from spreading infections on planes.
In August, the airport became the first business in the U.S. to deploy the Smart Helmet by Italy-based KeyBiz. Already in use at airports worldwide, Michigan police use thermal imaging to screen passengers from as far as 21 feet away for a fever, a key symptom of COVID-19.
The police plan to utilize the helmet’s other features in the future, including facial recognition, license plate reading, and QR Code-detection capabilities. Once rolled out, police will be able to upload photos of criminal suspects and license plates and scan crowds and parking lots for matches.
Smart helmets can help police quickly scan crowds for criminal suspects.
And a researcher at the Missouri University of Science & Technology recently received a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to develop a smart helmet that can help accurately diagnose mild TBI victims.
Mild TBIs can occur without apparent signs and symptoms of head trauma. Unfortunately, that makes them challenging to diagnose and often prevents patients from seeking timely help. Treating a TBI patient within the first 60 minutes of injury is vital to up the odds of long-term recovery.
The Missouri S&T smart helmet will wirelessly relay data about trauma-inducing actions in real-time, integrating machine learning that can detect the severity of an impact. That way, the helmet will instantly warn users of the seriousness of a concussive event in the field—saving diagnosis time and ensuring immediate medical care.
Smart helmets that warn wearers about the severity of concussive events may improve long-term recovery from TBIs.
Soldiers and law enforcement lay their lives on the line to protect their communities. In turn, they deserve protective equipment that reflects the innovation, curiosity, and commitment of the world’s best engineers and scientists.
A decade ago, it was unfathomable what today’s most-advanced helmets can do—and a new era of smart technology looms on the horizon.
Cost will play a significant factor in how quickly these helmets gain common use, along with the results of widespread operational testing in the field. But there is little question that smart technology will play a critical role in giving military and law enforcement new capabilities and protection, enabling them to execute dangerous tasks with greater safety and effectiveness.
Hard Head Veterans stays on top of helmet research to ensure we provide the best protection possible. Read more blog posts, and be sure to check out our gear, including a selection of the best tactical helmets and essential helmet accessories.