Firefighters Get A Little Help From Tactile Sensory Helmet
March 30, 2013

Tactile Helmet Prototype Could Help Firefighters And First Responders

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

UK researchers have developed a prototype sensory helmet that could help firefighters and other rescue workers find their way through dark or smoke-filled conditions while performing their life-saving duties.

The specially-adapted “tactile helmet” was developed by researchers at the University of Sheffield Centre for Robotics (SCentRo) and was inspired by the study of touch-related sensing of rodents who use their whiskers as an early-warning system against potential hazards.

The helmet has been outfitted with several ultrasound sensors used to detect the distance between the person wearing the headgear and nearby obstacles, including walls. Those sensors send signals to vibration pads attached to the inside of the helmet — pads which touch the forehead of the person wearing it.

The signals, the researchers claim, can be used by first responders who are forced by the nature of their jobs to work in poorly lit or smoke-filled conditions to find those walls and other obstacles. By detecting them, the firefighters and rescue workers could better make their way through unfamiliar environments.

“When a firefighter is responding to an emergency situation he will be using his eyes and ears to make sense of his environment, trying to make out objects in a smoke filled room, for example, or straining to hear sounds from people who might need rescuing.” SCentRo Director and Sheffield University cognitive neuroscience professor Tony Prescott said in a statement.

“We found that in these circumstances it was difficult to process additional information through these senses. Using the sense of touch, however, we were able to deliver additional information effectively,” he added.

The prototype was developed using a Rosenbauer-brand firefighting helmet that was donated to SCentRo, and was produced as a result of a two-year research project funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Prescott and his colleagues decided to place the vibrating pads on the helmet because it allows the rescue worker to respond more quickly to the signals than placing them on the fingers would have. Likewise, not placing them on the fingers would keep a first responder´s hands unencumbered and free to complete other tasks.

The researchers are now attempting to secure a commercial partner in order to help further develop the project, according to SCentRo. There are also plans to develop a lightweight version of the prototype which could be used to help individuals suffering from impaired vision by giving them an additional “sense” in their day-to-day life.

The device will be on display at this year´s Gadget Show Live, which will be held at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham from April 3 through April 7.