Robot Head Restraint to Save Racers’ Necks

Maker News
Robot Head Restraint to Save Racers’ Necks
Mechanek in position (Photo: Mechanek).

A system of gears and pulleys designed to protect racecar drivers’ heads in crashes won the Pitch Your Prototype challenge at MakerCon this week.

The Mechanek active head restraint is designed to be more effective than the standard head brace, the HANS device, at immobilizing a driver’s head during a frontal crash. It also offers drivers greater freedom to move their head, giving them better awareness of the environment around them.

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Like the HANS, the Mechanek uses straps that attach to points on the drivers’ helmet. The Mechanek’s straps are on reels connected to motors. In normal driving the motors keep the slack out of the straps but allow the driver a full 180 degrees of horizontal head rotation; the HANS reportedly offers much less flexility, as its straps are fixed in place.

Mechanek at MakerCon
Team co-founder Mark Gallagher pitches Mechanek at MakerCon. (Photo: Hep Svadja)

The Mechanek can also react to a crash to position the drivers’ head when necessary, to prevent injury from head movement. Co-founder Mark Gallagher says that in a 40G crash test, the Mechanek was 30% more effective than the HANS at preventing motion that could lead to a concussion, and 20% better at reducing basal skull fractures, a potentially fatal injury.

The device is in two parts: a mechanical unit with motors, gears, and a solenoids that attaches to a brace the driver wears on his or her neck (like a HANS). It’s connected by data and power cables to the control box that runs an Intel Edison board (Intel provided support for the project) and a suite of sensors.

The mechanical bits of the Mechanek (Photo: Mechanek)
The mechanical bits of the Mechanek (Photo: Mechanek)
The electronics board for the Mechanek has an Intel Edison board, an interface for a car's OBD-II port, and various sensors.
The electronics board for the Mechanek has an Intel Edison board, an interface for a car’s OBD-II port, and various sensors. (Photo: Hep Svadja)

The Mechanek is also attached to the car’s own data bus via an OBD-II connection, Gallagher says, so it can recognize a crash event before impact and pull the driver’s head into a safe position — much like a passenger car with advanced safety gear can fire seatbelt pre-tensioners before an impact.

Gallagher says the device is currently best used in rally cars, but could be used in almost all other race cars if their seats were re-designed to offer drivers more head mobility.

The device is both heavier and more expensive than a HANS, though, and will compete in a market dominated by a well-funded and aggressive competitive, Simpson Race Products.

For Winning the Pitch Your Prototype Challenge, the Mechanek team of mechanical engineering graduated studends from the University of Pennsylvania  received $5000. The Challenge was a partnership between Make: and Cornell University.

Check out the other four finalists from the challenge, including a robot plant grower and a team trying to reinvent robot wheels.

Mechanek Team
The Mechanek team, left to right: Mark Gallagher, Bahram Banisadr, and Kristopher Li. (Photo: Hep Svadja)
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Rafe Needleman

Rafe Needleman is the editor-in-chief of Maker Media. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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