Sensing the danger

2 min read

Helmet-mounted displays and body sensors could help save firefighters’ lives.

Wearable computers could prevent deaths among firefighters by helping them to navigate in smoke and assess danger levels.

Helmet-mounted displays and wearable sensors under development by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology (FIT) would measure the firefighters’ physical condition and the state of their surroundings before sending data via radio to a command post. Information and instructions would then be relayed back to a display on the helmets.

The research is part of a European project, wearIT@work. Technologies under development include coin-sized radio relays that are distributed around a building after it is entered. These then build up a self-organising radio network to help firefighters’ navigation and orientation.

Sensors that measure temperature and air composition can also be distributed. Data is stored and processed in a computer in each firefighter’s belt buckle before being transmitted to a display — ideally in their helmet visor.

Sensors embedded in clothing and equipment will measure factors such as heart rate, electrical skin resistance and body temperature. These can be sent to team leaders so they can measure the health of those in a building and order an evacuation if necessary.

The group is carrying out extensive requirements analysis and user studies by observing Paris firefighters in action. Hardware and software based on this work is under development by Fraunhofer partners which include ETH Zürich and Zeiss.

‘We are open to use whatever technology seems suitable,’ said FIT project manager Markus Klann. ‘Apart from bio-sensors integrated into the shirt we envisage using inertia sensors and ultrasonic sensors to obtain the required data.

‘The first two-week field evaluation is scheduled for September and will include testing the then available technologies under close-to-reality situations at a firefighting training centre using artificially-produced smoke and fire under controlled conditions.’

The team is also developing software to recognise the relationship between firefighters’ physical state and changing conditions, such as rising room temperature or a reduction in oxygen. Danger level alerts can then be relayed to both commanders and the firefighters themselves.

NOTE: A hi-tech version of that seaside staple, the coin-operated telescope, has been developed by engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics (IGD).

The system, which will be installed at a popular fossil site near Darmstadt in Germany, uses Augmented Reality technology to superimpose computer-generated images over a real view.

Visitors will be able to look at a view of the landscape containing cut-away views enhanced with text and graphics of the geological strata and some of the more spectacular fossil finds.

Due to be installed at the site in April, the telescope is currently on display at the CeBit show, where its developer is hoping to attract customers from the tourism and entertainment industries.