'Virtual' crash dummy to be lifelike and immortal

An international group of vehicle manufacturers and suppliers has formed a Global Human Body Models Consortium to fund development of a computer-based crash test dummy that will overcome the limitations of the current plastic and steel versions.

Two teams of engineers with the University of Virginia's Centre for Biomechanics will play major roles in the creation of this "virtual" dummy, which will exist entirely within computers, but will be more realistic than any physical dummy ever subjected to a crash test.

The highly detailed computer dummies – computational models of a full human being – will incorporate extreme lifelike detail of the complexities and characteristics of flesh, bones, ligaments, blood vessels and organs.

"Already, cars and their safety systems are designed on computers," said Richard Kent, one of U.Va.'s team leaders on the project and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. "It's logical that we would create a virtual crash test dummy that would allow us to test these safety systems before they are ever physically built."

Kent and his six-member team will model the human thorax and upper extremities, including the ribcage, muscles and ligaments, and the lungs and heart.

Jeff Crandall, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of U.Va.'s Centre for Applied Biomechanics, is leading another team in the development of a virtual pelvis and lower extremities.

The Global Human Body Models Consortium recently awarded the two teams $3m to complete their projects within the next few years. Teams of researchers at six other universities and institutes are creating models of other parts of the human body, including the head, neck and abdomen.

"Eventually all of these models will be joined together to create the most sophisticated and lifelike simulation of the entire human body ever assembled for safety testing," said Damien Subit, a U.Va. research scientist working on the model of the thorax.

He said the virtual human will be subjected to nearly infinite virtual crash scenarios to determine in graphic detail what happens to organs, bone and tissue when subjected to forces and impacts from a range of angles at different velocities. Researchers will be able to see, in effect, how a neck breaks in a crash, how a lung is punctured by a broken rib or a liver is bruised or a hip shattered.

The advantages of a virtual dummy are considerable. Typical crash tests are costly, but a virtual crash will cost nearly nothing, once the dummy is developed. And a physical dummy, with a life span of about ten years, must be repaired after each crash. A virtual dummy will be, in a sense, immortal, and could be used repeatedly in a far wider range of crash scenarios.

The virtual dummy will eventually be configured in variable sizes and weights, representing the true range of human body types. "This will be an adaptable, cost-saving system that will provide amazing insight to body injuries for improving auto safety," Kent said.

He added that the virtual dummy could be useful in other ways as well, such as for the design of safer sporting goods, and in medical schools for students studying trauma injuries.

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