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Army Investment in Risk Research Yields Safer Toys for Children

ArmyVT Toy Research2

Risk may be unavoidable for soldiers, but Army-funded researchers hope to use science and technology to make their job safer by reducing the risk of eye and facial injuries from projectiles. The same research is also making toys safer for children.

A team of Virginia Tech researchers published findings that have become what they call "the gold standard for minimizing eye and face injury risk," not only for the military, but for many toy manufacturers who now use the same studies to make safer consumer products.

Thousands of research hours and analysis went into the studies funded by the U.S. Army. Virginia Tech researchers published their work in scientific journals. Consumer product companies then picked up on these publications and started using them to make toys safer. This led to the Virginia Tech researchers assisting companies in the design of products like squirt guns.

"We helped design a lot of the Nerf darts to make sure there is no eye injury risk," said Dr. Stefan Duma, Virginia Tech Harry C. Wyatt professor and interim director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science in Blacksburg, Va. "We look at toy helicopter design or any kind of consumer product, even light sabers or anything that could be a projectile into the face of kids. We help design those to minimize eye injury risk."

Virginia Tech has the world's largest injury biomechanics group, Duma said.

"We partner closely with the Army to understand blast injury and to help look at ways of preventing those types of injuries to the soldier," he said. "Going back to the early 2000s, I've done a lot of work with the Army looking at eye and face injuries in soldiers and the prevention of these injuries. We did a lot of basic research for about the past two decades quantifying eye injury risk from projectiles, as well as facial fracture risk."

The Virginia Tech researchers developed a standalone dummy called the Facial and Ocular Countermeasure Safety, or FOCUS, headform.

"Imagine a dummy head, one that has special sensors in it that can measure eye injury risk and facial injury risk," Duma said. "We developed tools that accurately quantify risk of injury from projectiles."

Researchers used the dummy to assess risk by measuring the force applied to the eye during testing toys such dart guns, foam launchers, and a ball launcher.

The Army took advantage of this data to help in the use and development of goggles, and even mandated their use.

"The number of injuries has come down with the use of protective eyewear," said Michelle Markey, a researcher with the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center at Natick, Mass. "Although you can't prevent all injuries, the majority can be avoided, or reduced in severity, by wearing the proper protection."

The Army Research Laboratory funds university research to advance science to make soldiers stronger and safer.

"Discoveries and innovations made with our academic and industrial partners are infused into the Army's S&T laboratory portfolio and create new scientific discoveries needed for technical advances to help ensure the Army maintains its technological edge," said Army Research Office Director Dr. David Skatrud.

In many cases, the Army's university research funding has provided key components to disruptive new technologies – for example, the invention of the laser and the ultra-precise clocks needed for GPS.

"Current research is expected to provide similarly revolutionary advances, like quantum information sciences for ultra-secure networking and communications," Skatrud said.

Duma said it feels great to know his work is not only helping soldiers, but minimizing eye and face injuries in children.

"Nowadays it's almost once a week that I get a call or an email from a toy company asking about this research," he said. "They're very interested. Even now we're getting into drones, and toy drones. We're using the same risk functions that we developed for the Army. What happens if a kid flies a drone into his face? What's the risk of injury? It's a very fulfilling part of the job, and we're happy that we can have these sort of translational and global impacts.”

It all goes back to that basic science research that the Army supported, he said.

"The Army's ability to invest research funds in universities and institutions is absolutely critical if we want to advance the scientific mission," Duma said. "We want to protect the soldier, but we can also protect civilian applications as well."

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