skip to main content
A researcher organizes NERF guns stored on a wall.

NERF: Safety isn’t kid’s stuff

"You'll shoot your eye out, kid."—Santa Claus, A Christmas Story

It’s a warning heard by many during childhood; however, thanks to a collaboration with the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, one brand of toys is reducing that risk.

With humble beginnings in the basement of Kelly Hall, in what was then the corner of Harry C. Wyatt Professor of Engineering, and University Distinguished Professor, Stefan Duma’s auto safety lab, the Helmet Lab has grown into the national go-to for helmet safety ratings from football to cycling and multiple sports in between. 

But helmets weren’t the focus of the call Duma received in 2011 – blasters were. NERF blasters to be specific. 

“We've been working with the toy company Hasbro, which makes the NERF products, for over 15 years now,” shared, Duma, who is now Director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences (ICTAS).  

To better understand how Virginia Tech researchers went from helmets to NERF blasters, we need to go back in time and include the Department of Defense (DoD). The DoD needed a device they could use to evaluate protective items to reduce the risk of injury because bombs were becoming a bigger part of warfare. 

“If you go back to the 80s and 90s, the type of conflict and injuries soldiers experienced really shifted. Improvised Explosive Devices, or IED's, became a big issue, and our troops started seeing a lot more shrapnel to the face, resulting in more eye injuries,” Duma relayed. “For about 10 years, the DoD funded the research, which was thousands of experiments, and years of design and development, culminating with the development of the Facial and Ocular Countermeasure Safety, or FOCUS, head form.” 

Describing the FOCUS, Duma said, “We made a computer model of the eye and did everything to develop this unique head form. It has sensors to measure every single bone, so we could separate the frontal bone from the maxilla and the nasal bone, and it’s all covered by skin. After thousands of tests to calibrate the sensor with all the data we had from various eye tests, we could now impact it with something - and determine the risk from facial fractures to an eye injury.” 

Now equipped with, essentially, a mannequin head, quite literally wired for impact, and data collection, the toy industry came knocking. 

Three student researchers shoot NERF bullets at dummy head.
Precision matters in data collection. Richard (Adam) Gillespie lines up the NERF toy with the FOCUS head form to get an accurate shot.
A dummy head to test the impact of NERF bullets.
The FOCUS head form contains load cells used to measure the force from impacts to the eye, facial bones, and mandible.
A student researcher connects cables in a junction box.
Multiple sensors extend from the FOCUS head form and need to be connected to the data acquisition system in a specific order.
A student researcher analyses the data on a computer screen.
Specialized software is used to analyze the data collected from each impact test.

From protecting soldiers on the battlefield to keeping kids in the backyard safe

After Duma and his team in the helmet lab published the findings from the DoD research, they started getting contacted by consumer products. 

Duma recounted, “It was never part of the original plan, but suddenly we had this tool, and tons of research with FOCUS, that could determine how people get hurt relative to eye and facial injuries. It was instantly useful for all these other applications.” 

Like toys - from NERF blasters to fireworks, Super Soakers and toy lightsabers. 

And an ongoing collaboration for safety was born. The Helmet Lab started working with the toy industry to develop limits to determine how fast and how heavy objects can be before they cause harm.  Using normalized kinetic energy, they developed a system to show the best predictor of eye injury. 

“Whether it's a baseball or a NERF dart, all items have some kinetic energy - meaning how fast the object is coming and its mass. If you're in the toy business, you know people want faster objects. How do you set that limit, because you could make them so fast they're like a bullet. That's a problem. So, at the Helmet Lab we worked to set the safety limit and got the toy industry to agree to the threshold we've set: 2400 KED or Kinetic Energy Density. We take the energy, divide it by the impact area, and set the limit,” Duma explained.  

NERF dart ocular testing in action.

“From our standards, companies can then reverse engineer their products so they can go as fast as is safe with a certain mass. That's why I always recommend staying with the NERF products and not the knock offs - because they've done the engineering to stay within these limits. We test all of their new products to make sure the latest blasters have almost no eye injury risk and are within these safety limits," said Duma.

Funding safety and students

The Helmet Lab is a busy place rating helmets for all sorts of sports. When adding toys to the mix you may be asking, who funds this testing? Well, the companies do. When a toy company, like Hasbro, develops a new blaster and they need testing to make sure it’s within standards, they give the Helmet Lab a call. 

Duma explained, “It's against the law to do this testing for free because we're a state university, with state equipment, and we can't let private industry use that equipment. Therefore, it's all billed to the company. We then take that revenue to fund students so they can get involved.”  

But how do they decide which products to test and how the students will be involved? 

That is a question for Mark Begonia, Director of Testing at the Helmet Lab. Begonia manages the projects submitted by organizations and companies by determining the what, the amount of time, and the how behind the requested testing and research.

When explaining his process, Begonia shares, “These companies are trying to make their products safer, which will make customers safer as well.” 

By evaluating the amount of time and resources involved in carrying out the testing requested, as well as what projects the students are currently working on, Begonia is able to determine both the staff needed and the cost. It is then the students who set up the experiments, collect and analyze data, and determine if the product is within the standardized limits.

With a lab of about 20 people, which is large by university lab standards, consisting of undergraduate and graduate students, a full-time technician, and five full-time staff, that revenue helps pay those doing the work. Which, as a student, can go a long way to helping with the affordability of college. The lab is also able to utilize funding to purchase new sensors and testing equipment – to continue the research of keeping people safe.  

Caption needed, mostly to ID the person

Researchers review video of NERF impact on a computer screen.
Andrew Calis
Andrew Calis, Test Engineer
Susanna Gagliardi
Susanna Gagliardi, Test Engineer
Richard (Adam) Gillespie
Richard (Adam) Gillespie, Test Engineer

More than child’s play

Toy safety may be something we all take for granted because we count on someone else having done the work. The science of keeping people safe only matters when you can put it into practice.  

When asked about his own parenting and if he wrapped his kids in bubble wrap when they were little, Duma replied with a smile and said, “I think if you ask my kids, they would tell you I nearly ruined all their lives being so restrictive. They're like, ‘Dad, come on now.’ Yeah, but you know, I’m pretty good at this stuff.”

So, with warmer temperatures here, time outside increasing, and a potential NERF battle on the horizon, know there are Hokies at work to make sure you can walk away with only a bruised ego should you take a dart to the face.  

Photos by Peter Means, Video courtesy The Helmet Lab

If you want to have an impact on our students and faculty like those featured in this magazine, go here to support the College of Engineering. For more information, call (540) 231-3628.