The year-long project concluded this month when Cordeiro and Lee unveiled a prototype helmet and subjected it to several tests designed to replicate whitewater conditions. The undergraduates attached the helmet to a dummy head, marked its position, then blasted it with a high-pressure fire hose that unleashed water moving at about 30 mph. The straps held the helmet firmly in place, indicating it should continue to protect a wearers head, even in a fast-moving river. The students also assembled an impact-test apparatus to mimic a high-speed collision between the helmet and a rock. Their test indicated the prototype helmet should absorb enough energy to prevent a serious head injury.
Much of the helmets protective power comes from three layers of EVA foam installed inside the shell. Each layer consists of a different density of closed-cell material, which will not absorb water if the wearer falls into a stream. The shell is made of rugged ABS plastic. Plastic head coverings are usually produced through an expensive molding process. But Cordeiro and Lee dramatically reduced the cost of their prototype helmet by using a high-tech rapid prototyping machine, which applies the plastic in a computer-guided shape through a process that resembles three-dimensional ink-jet printing. Ultimately, they spent only $5,400 to design, fabricate and test their prototype helmet.
It was really rewarding to see it come together, said Lee. We got what we were looking for, what we were designing for. Added Cordeiro: This was a research project where we actually got to see something important come out of it a product that could save peoples lives.