Sensory helmet could help firefighters feel their way

A new vibrating helmet that could help firefighters navigate through dark or smoke-filled buildings is under development at Sheffield University.

The helmet uses ultrasound sensors to detect nearby obstacles.

The helmet sends signals from ultrasound sensors that detect the distances between the helmet and nearby walls or other obstacles to vibration pads attached to the inside of the helmet at the wearer’s forehead.

The researchers behind the technology, who are based at the Sheffield Centre for Robotics (SCentRo), said it was inspired by the way whiskers give rodents a tactile sense of their environment, and that a lightweight version could be used to help people with visual impairments.

‘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,’ said SCentRo director Prof Tony Prescott 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.’

The team found the helmet was the best place to locate the vibrating pads because users responded more quickly to stimulus at the forehead than, for example, the fingertips, and this would also leave their hands free for other tasks.

The prototype helmet was developed using a Rosenbauer helmet donated by Northfire Ltd and was produced following a two-year research project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service have also assisted the project, providing advice during the development period as well as access to their training facility. The next step is to find a commercial partner interested in further developing the helmet.