Scientists dropped dummies on their heads to test an inflatable helmet

Right now, conventional helmets face a trade-off: A thick, uncomfortable, and heavy helmet is safer, but people won’t wear it — but a thinner helmet that people will actually wear is less safe. So the Swedish company Hövding Sweden AB came up with an alternative: an inflatable head-airbag that looks kind of like a collar when it’s not inflated, and a parka hood when it is.

The helmet is designed to be tucked into a sleeve worn around the cyclist’s neck until sensors inside it detect a possible impact. Then, it rapidly inflates like an airbag. How it does that isn’t all that clear from the company’s webpage. According to the website, the company created an algorithm that is able to distinguish normal cycling motions — like stopping, starting, or reaching to pick up keys — from a catastrophic accident. When there’s a crash, the algorithm triggers the release of a helium-based gas mixture from a canister tucked into the helmet’s sleeve.

Camarillo didn’t test the inflation mechanism, or the sensor. But he and his colleagues did drop the dummy scalp-side down on an aluminum plate from heights of up to six feet. As long as the helmet was fully inflated, it reduced the risk of head injury seven to eight times more than the hardened-foam helmet.

Camarillo found that if the Hövding helmet wasn’t fully inflated, it flattened out — which would mean a flattened head, too. And even if it was filled up, it’s possible that it would bottom-out at higher speeds that Camarillo’s team haven’t tested yet. So it’s not a total victory for the new helmet design — but this set of experiments may galvanize other designers to think about different ways of solving the safety versus wear problem in the future.