RFID Helps NOCSAE Study Youth Football Helmets

By Claire Swedberg

The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment employed EPC Gen 2 passive tags and readers to track the headgear retrieved from youth football groups, in order to carry out tests.

The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing safety standards related to helmets and other equipment, has been employing an RFID-based solution to track football helmets as they are retrieved from local youth football organizations to be tested or refurbished, with an end goal of helping to prevent head injuries for young athletes.

NOCSAE is carrying out the testing on behalf of a consortium of athletic and safety associations. The group’s members include not only NOCSAE, but the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Football League, USA Football, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association (NAERA), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) and helmet makers Rawlings, Riddell, Schutt and Xenith.

The technology, provided by Santa Barbara, Calif., company Serialio.com (pronounced serial IO), consists of passive EPC Gen 2 RFID tags and readers, as well as software to manage the collected read data. NOCSAE used the technology throughout the summer of 2012, to track which helmets were collected by its service providers (helmet-refurbishing companies), and to identify the headgear when NOCSAE later retrieved it for testing.

NOCSAE and several university researchers are currently in the process of investigating how well helmets in use by young athletes meet its standards for protecting them from concussions as they play football. According to Michael Oliver, the organization's executive director and general counsel, the premise that NOCSAE is testing is that the older helmets may not meet its standards, and thus would not provide proper protection against head injuries during football games and practices.

Refurbishing companies attached an Alien Technology RFID tag to each helmet's exterior, and read the tag using a Serialio reader connected, via Bluetooth, to a cell phone.

In 2012, the consortium had launched a program in which they offered to replace helmets for youth football clubs in disadvantaged regions, provided that the headgear was more than 10 years old. In its first year, the program was piloted in four markets: the California Bay Area, Gulf Coast region, northern Ohio and the tri-state region around New York City. NOCSAE hired helmet reconditioning and refurbishing businesses to retrieve the headgear, inspect it and store it for NOCSAE, which would later run tests on some of those helmets, as part of its study.

The research project required a database that could record details regarding each individual helmet, Oliver says, as well as make it easy for NOCSAE to later locate that helmet. He determined that RFID would be the best solution for such a venture, since the technology could not only enable a user equipped with a handheld reader to identify each helmet, but would also make a particular helmet easy to later locate using a Geiger-counter mode on the handheld reader.

Serialio provided seven of its Scanfob handhelds (manufactured by Tertium Technology), and its MobileGrid software solution, says Dave Boydston, Serialio's president. Upon picking up the helmets, the refurbishing companies transported them to their own facilities, attached an Alien Technology adhesive tag (measuring 3 inches by 1 inch) to each helmet's exterior, and read the tag using the Serialio interrogator. That data was then transmitted, via a Bluetooth connection, to a mobile phone and back to a server. At the end of the day, the information was updated on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet in which each helmet's make, model, manufacturing date and RFID number were stored, along with data indicating who had possession of the helmet.

Once NOCSAE decided which helmets it needed for its own research, Oliver says, he could then check the spreadsheet, locate the appropriate headgear and the company storing it, and then send a message to that firm, along with the RFID number (which was also printed in text and as a bar-coded number on the tag's front). Staff members would take the handheld to the shelves and read the helmet tags until identifying the one required. The helmet was then sent to NOCSAE, which put the headgear through its standard testing in order to ensure that it met the required safety standards. The study's results will be determined in March 2013, Oliver says, adding that although his staff had an RFID reader on hand, they used the device only for demonstration purposes, rather than to identify a specific helmet, since they were working with just a single helmet at a time.

The RFID technology was useful during the initial reading in providing data about the helmet, Oliver says, and proved to be less necessary for locating the headgear. He says he initially predicted that NOCSAE would collect between 5,000 and 20,000 helmets, based on the expectations of the youth football groups that had estimated the number of helmets onsite that were more than 10 years old. In fact, only about 4,000 helmets were retrieved, since the groups were often mistaken regarding the helmets' ages (many were not yet the requisite decade old). Because the quantity of helmets was ultimately less than expected, Oliver says, locating a specific helmet stored on a shelf often did not require an RFID reader, since the item could easily be identified visually by personnel.

According to Oliver, the greatest benefit achieved from the RFID technology came from the initial tag read as the helmet was input into the system. This, he says, provided a record at the end of each day of which helmets had been acquired.

Oliver, however, has a vision of providing RFID in such a way that it would benefit more people than just the reconditioners involved in the 2012 project. Now that the technology has proven to work effectively, he says, "It opens the door to other opportunities." He hopes to work with Serialio to develop a solution in which tags could be placed in the helmets' interior during manufacture, with the Serialio software storing data about each helmet on a hosted server. Youth football groups, or companies that provide helmet refurbishing, could then acquire a handheld reader (or simply input an ID number printed on the tag) to access data about each helmet from the Serialio hosted server, in order to better track the headgear's age, when it was last refurbished and when it may no longer meet safety standards.

As an interim step, NOCSAE may opt to utilize RFID technology again this summer, when the consortium carries out the second phase of its program, in this case refurbishing and then returning them to the appropriate youth football group. In this case, a tag could be applied inside each helmet, with the intention of it being read periodically in the future when data related to that helmet was required. Upon receiving the headgear, the refurbishing company would apply the tag, read it and enter the helmet into the system. If the helmet then was sent back to a refurbishing company, the firm would simply use the handheld reader to capture the tag ID and learn that headgear's history.

Serialio, which has been in operation since 1992, offers bar-code and RFID solutions, including Near Field Communication (NFC), high-frequency (HF) and ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) technologies. Boydston says his company's customers pay an annual fee for software and server access, as well as a one-time licensing fee and the cost of purchasing the readers. They can buy tags either from Serialio or from their own provider. Annual fees, he says, range from $30 to $120 per mobile device, in addition to $99 to $199 for licensing, depending on the mobile device used. Readers cost approximately $600 to $650 apiece, though Boydston says that price may drop slightly in the near future.