News | Oct 30, 2019

Navy scientists develop state-of-the-art sensor for detecting blast-injured brains

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, left, the commander of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, provides assistant gunner support to a member of the 5th Special Forces Group during counter-ISIS operations in southern Syria Nov. 22, 2017.

Jacob Connor/Army

A group of U.S. Navy scientists have created a new and improved way to detect traumatic brain injuries.

The cutting-edge technology, a very small but highly sensitive blast sensor, can operate at extremely high frequencies, allowing it to measure rapid changes in force and therefore predict and analyze traumatic forces more accurately than current tools.

The Navy filed for a patent the technology in April, listing Drs. Peter Finkel and Margo Staruch of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Materials Science & Technology Division, and Dr. Timothy Bentley, an expert in traumatic brain injuries at the Office of Naval Research as the inventors.

The patent application, available below, was first made public on October 24.

“With exposure of an individual to a blast event, mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) may occur that can cause lasting damage and that poses a greater threat if the individual is exposed to a second event shortly thereafter,” the scientists wrote in the application. “To correlate the motion of the head to any potential injury…it is desirable to measure the acceleration of the head as well as the profile of the blast wave.”

There is a strong need, they concluded, for an “improved blast sensor” to measure these types of waves and potentially better and more quickly diagnose brain injury in the field.

Current Department of Defense rules requires everyone within 165 feet of an explosion to “stand down” for 24 hours and undergo a mandatory medical checkup.

According to Bentley, this approach presents two major challenges.

Some forward operating bases are only 300 or so feet across, so half of the personnel would need to stand down after an explosion.

Furthermore, 24 hours isn’t enough time for a regular medical exam to detect signs of even mild TBI.

However, using the blast-proof, coin-sized sensors field doctors can, with help from a special algorithm to convert data into a “go or no-go” injury threshold, almost immediately determine if exposed warfighters can stay in the fight, or need a TBI-focused medical exam.

The sensor, which uses a specialized crystal and amplifier in order to measure the high-frequency energies of a strong blast, can be easily mounted to a helmet or body armor, making it perfect for military or potential athletic applications.

Manufacturing opportunity

Micaela Whalen, senior technology manager at TechLink, said that the patent-pending device could be licensed by a private company for manufacturing and sales.

Through technology transfer agreements, U.S. firms have the opportunity to partner with the Navy, leverage their research, and manufacture products for commercial and military sales.

“NRL is one of the nation’s top R&D institutions and they have an active and efficient tech transfer office that’s constantly looking for opportunities to help businesses license its intellectual property,” Whalen said.

TechLink is the U.S. Navy’s national partnership intermediary for technology transfer. The non-profit organization specializes in helping U.S. businesses find and navigate technology licensing opportunities. Many military-developed technologies also have non-military applications, as in this case, where the sensor could be integrated into helmets or other protective gear used by athletes, astronauts, or industrial workers.

“This blast sensor is a unique product that solves a real problem,” Whalen said. “There’s definitely value here.”

Businesses interested in evaluating the sensor and discussing licensing can contact Micaela Whalen at or 406-994-1302.