Given an option between safety and comfort, some consumers are likely to choose comfort. The same is true when it comes to bicycle helmets, which tend to feel too warm after long or intensive rides. The shape and non-optimised vents in the helmet as well as the insulated liners often end up trapping much too much heat.
People commuting to work on a bike, for instance, do not want a sweaty head and tussled hair because of wearing a helmet. Without compromising safety, researchers were challenged to make the helmets a lot cooler to wear. The dilemma was tackled by the EU-funded SMARTHELMET project which brought together research and industry experts to come up with a novel solution.
‘SMARTHELMET project focused on developing helmets with active thermal management, where the ventilation can be controlled autonomously depending on a rider’s cooling needs,’ says project coordinator Tiago Sotto Mayor of the University of Porto in Portugal.
By designing and creating new helmets that are cooler and more comfortable, the hope is that many more will start wearing them. More bikers imply a more active population and possibly cleaner air for those who choose no longer to commute by car. Furthermore, engineering that could save lives is not only smart but is also socially responsible.
‘Moreover, helmets are passive objects with a fixed geometry and shape which cannot adapt to riders’ different thermal environments and ventilation needs,’ says Sotto Mayor.
Cooler heads prevail
Standard helmets serve only to protect a person’s head. So making one that can also sense, predict and adapt its ventilation to the cooling needs of a rider requires a lot of expertise.
For SMARTHELMET, this meant first bringing together a mix of experts in biomechanics, electronics, thermo-regulation, engineering, manufacturing and innovation.
SMARTHELMET researchers then integrated electronics into bicycle helmets to enable real-time sensing of physiological and environmental parameters. These parameters included heart rate, temperature and relative humidity, which were used to gauge a rider’s heat output and varying cooling needs.
‘We investigated ways to adapt the helmet ventilation via changes in the features of its vents and linked their operation with the rider’s thermo-regulation needs,’ says Sotto Mayor.
The findings were then integrated into an innovative helmet concept to optimise ventilation via sensing, electronics and smart operation. The concept also took in other factors like surrounding environmental conditions and the cyclist’s level of physical activity.
LAZER, a company that designs and sells bicycle helmets in more than 65 countries spread over five continents, was also involved in the project. Sotto Mayor describes the firm as a natural partner to turn the research into innovative smart bicycle helmets.
However, he also notes that the research has a massive potential in other sectors as well, including items such as motorcycle helmets, industrial protective headgear and even protective clothing.
‘The potential impact of the work developed in the SMARTHELMET project goes beyond the cycling world,’ he adds, noting that the project has also given young researchers a great opportunity for hands-on experience across different sectors.