Researchers in the US are developing what is claimed to be the world’s first 3D printed military ‘smart helmet’, featuring embedded sensors to protect the brain.

Led by Rice University in Texas, the smart helmet project is intended to modernise standard-issue military helmets, using a 3D-printed nanomaterial-enhanced exoskeleton. Outward looking sensors could help detect external threats, while inward-facing sensors embedded in a shock-absorbing layer could help measure impacts and brain function following kinetic or directed-energy effects during battle.

So far, the team - led by principal investigator Paul Cherukuri, executive director of Rice’s Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering - has received $1.3m from the US Office of Naval Research through the Defence Research University Instrumentation Programme to develop the helmet.

Rice said it will use Carbon Inc.’s L1 printer to develop a strong-but-light military-grade helmet that incorporates advances in materials, image processing, artificial intelligence, haptic feedback and energy storage. The printer enables rapid prototyping that in turn simplifies the process of incorporating the sensors, cameras, batteries and wiring harnesses the programme requires, said Cherukuri.

“Current helmets have evolved little since the last century and are still heavy, bulky, passive devices,” he said. “Because of advances in sensors and additive manufacturing, we’re now reimagining the helmet as a 3D-printed, AI-enabled, ‘always-on’ wearable that detects threats near or far and is capable of launching countermeasures to protect soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.”

The Smart Helmet programme will use technology drawn from projects such as FlatCam - a system developed by co-investigator and electrical and computer engineer Ashok Veeraraghavan and his colleagues - that incorporates image processing to eliminate the need for lenses, as well as Cherukuri’s Teslaphoresis. Likened to a tractor beam for nanomaterials, Teslaphoresis could help create physical and electromagnetic shields inside the helmets that could help protect the wearer.

“A smart helmet task force has been assembled from some of the finest minds at Rice to tackle the challenge of creating a self-contained, intelligent system that protects the warfighter at all times,” said Cherukuri.