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Hedgehog Quills to Put a Protective Spike into NFL Football Helmets

What if the secret to keeping NFL players safe from head injuries could be found in the quills of a hedgehog?


This blog explores how these spiky, yet adorable-looking creatures, may soon offer sports athletes a unique and much-improved alternative to high-impact head protection.


At first glance, the prickly pelt of this little mammal might not appear connected to high-impact sports gear. However, these animals do have the surprising ability to survive high-impact falls, out of trees!


Yes, that's right, hedgehogs have been known to climb trees as they explore and forage for food.



By curling up into a ball as they do so, their quills, absorb the shock. And it's this shock-absorbing action that's led to an innovative approach to sports safety.


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A creative team at Hedgemon have created an innovative range of helmet-liners inspired by hedgehogs.


These new liners aim to better protect NFL players from concussions caused by head-to-head collisions on the field.


Funded by the Spark Fund of the University of Akron Research Foundation (UARF), biomimicry fellows Dr Emily Kennedy and Dr Bor-Kai 'Bill' Hsiung completed their prototype testing for the hedgehog-inspired impact protection in 2017, with promising success.


Their innovative helmet liners use packets of 3D-printed flexible polymers that act like real hedgehog spines. They bend and twist in such a way that they better manage impacts, and improve durability compared to normal helmets throughout repeated blows.


If these new helmet designs work out, they could significantly reduce NFL concussion rates.


But what's the science behind hedgehog quills and how do they offer such unique & effective shock absorption?


The Science of Hedgehog Quills and Their Protective Mechanism


When they feel threatened hedgehogs cleverly curl into a spiky ball to protect themselves. Their lattice of quills combines to create a protective mechanism that offers the animal, defence and incredible shock absorption. The quills of hedgehogs are also unique in their internal structure. This has made their quills a topic of interest for many researchers.


Their spines are made of keratin, the same protein that human hair and fingernails are made of. But it's the internal structure of the quills that in part makes them both strong and flexible.


The Unique Structure of a Hedgehog's Modified Hairs


Looking at the structure of these modified hairs under a microscope reveals the complex structures that make each one so tough and durable.


Scientists describe these internal structures as a "square honeycomb". These square honeycomb core structures can support three times a load, than comparable spines without a stiffened core.


How Strong Are Hedgehog Quills?


An interesting property of quills is that their strength varies with how wet they are.

When dry, they're extremely strong.


This built-in strength and complex keratin structure give these quills the ability to absorb impacts without weighing the hedgehog down or limiting its movement. This unique combination of strength and elasticity makes hedgehogs an interesting model for creating protective gear.


But why would we want to look toward these creatures for inspiration in the first place? Surely NFL football helmets offer enough safety and protection already, or do they?



Are NFL Helmets Safe?


The safety of NFL helmets has been a big concern for the sports community for some time. Even with the advanced helmet technology of today, there's a need for solutions that can handle hits from every direction. This includes head-on impacts and the more damaging sideways 'glancing' blows.


NFL player comes in for a big hit into another player

The Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) is a leading advancement in helmet technology.


However, although it's specially designed to better deal with angled hits, it hasn't been as successful in dealing with the associated twists & turns that lead to severe brain injuries. This gap shows how more creative helmet designs are needed to keep players from becoming another statistic.


So, could the application of hedgehog spines in NFL football helmets provide us with the answer?


NFL Concussion Statistics

  • In 2023, there were 219 incidents of concussion

  • An NFL player has a 37.9% chance of having at least one concussion during their career

  • There's an average of 1.6 concussion evaluations per game

  • 46% of concussions are caused by helmet-to-helmet collisions


What's the Safest Football Helmet Right Now 2024?


Finding the safest football helmet is hard because different brands use various technologies.


One option includes Riddell's Axiom3D which has earned itself the top position as the NFL's best player head protection for 2024.


The NFL's Most Technologically Advanced Football Helmet 2024 (Riddell's Axiom3D)

But as advanced as these helmets are they still have their limitations, and safety improvements are always welcome.


Thankfully the technology created by the team at Hedgemon stands out as a promising development.


Application of Hedgehog Quills in NFL Football Helmets


For four years, the team has worked on a project inspired by how the quills of hedgehogs protect these charming little animals.


Using this knowledge they're now developing a liner that lessens the impact from rotational forces, which could lower the risk and severity of concussions. This idea came from studying a hedgehog that many hedgehog owners may be delighted to hear was called Toothpick.


Aided by Toothpick, the efforts of the Hedgemon team have contributed greatly to the study of helmet safety. The study of this area is getting a financial boost through the NFL's Engineering Roadmap, with an incredible $60 million dedicated to helmet development.


With all this research and investment, could 'hedgehog-inspired impact protection technology' be on the brink of upgrading the gridiron game?


Upgrading Football Helmets with Hedgehog Impact Protection


Hedgemon's prototype helmet used the quills of hedgehogs as a model for impact protection. Their design acts to lessen the shock delivered to the brain.


Their 3D-printed packets twist, flex and buckle across each other which helps to absorb more force.


The materials act like the spines of a hedgehog making it great at soaking up hits. Whereas old helmets don't stop the head from spinning inside, this new design does.




The technology went through a series of tough tests to check its safety.


The team used slow-motion cameras to see the effects of dropping weights on the prototype helmet. The early results are promising, beating even the best helmets out there. The team has worked on this technology for six years and plans to take the hedgehog helmets into full-scale production.


The hope is that this new helmet will become a big hit in keeping NFL players safe while highlighting the power of nature-inspired designs.


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Consider checking out '30 Animals That Made Us Smarter'.

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FAQ

How do quills protect hedgehogs?

The quills of hedgehogs are modified hairs made of keratin. They can bend and twist to absorb shocks. This helps spread out force across their body, protecting them from injuries.


Why are current NFL helmets inadequate in preventing concussions?

Today's NFL helmets are made to stop skull fractures. However, they're not designed to stop the movement of the brain inside the skull during impacts. Because of this, they don't offer enough protection against rotational forces which often cause concussions.


What advancements have been made in football helmet technology?

One major improvement is the Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS). Hedgemon's hedgehog-inspired liner also increases impact absorption. It handles both linear and rotational forces more efficiently during impacts.


How does Hedgemon's technology improve NFL helmet safety?

Hedgemon's approach uses polymer quills like those of a hedgehog. They bend and twist, spreading out force for better impact absorption and durability. The technology also manages rotational forces, which could lower concussion risks.


What testing is involved in developing Hedgemon's helmet liners?

The liners were put through tough tests, like dropping weights on them to measure force feedback. High-speed cameras check how the materials react. The goal is to ensure the liners distribute and absorb impacts just like the quills of a hedgehog.


How are the quills of hedgehogs different from the quills of porcupines?

Unlike the quills of porcupines, the quills of hedgehogs - although pretty spiky - aren't barbed and don't break off easily.


How Sharp Are Hedgehog Quills?

Although not as sharp as a porcupine's a hedgehog's quill is sharp to the touch and does a good job keeping predators at bay. Quills of porcupines are more dangerous because they can get stuck in the skin more easily.


What role do muscles play in the protection mechanism of hedgehogs?

Hedgehogs have muscular fibres that lift individual quills, improving their defence. This muscle control creates a packed, protective layer and helps to spread impact forces evenly.


What materials and methods are used to create the hedgehog-inspired liners?

The liners are made using 3D printing and specially chosen injection moulding. These techniques aim to replicate the strong, interactive nature of hedgehog spines.


What organisations are involved in the development of Hedgemon's helmet technology?

Hedgemon works with the University of Akron Research Foundation (UARF). They also follow standards from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE). The idea came from a joint class at the University of Akron and the Cleveland Institute of Art.


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