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‘Tactile helmet’ lets firefighters work in smoke-filled buildings

Researchers from the University of Sheffield have developed a specially-adapted “tactile helmet” that could give firefighters working in smoke-filled buildings important information about their environment.

A team of researchers at the Sheffield Centre for Robotics outfitted the tactile helmet with several ultrasound sensors that are utilized to calculate the distances between the helmet and walls or other obstacles the firefighter may encounter.

Signals from the ultrasound sensors are sent to vibration pads that are located inside the helmet. Vibrations will allow rescue workers to find walls and other obstacles that could help them move through a smoke-filled room or dark hallway.

Researchers hope to make a lightweight version of the technology to assist the visually impaired.

According to a news release from the University of Sheffield, researchers got their idea for the tactile helmet from studying tactile sensing in rodents, whose whiskers offer early warning of potential problems.

According to Tony Prescott, professor at University of Sheffield and director of SCentRo, a firefighter utilizes his eyes and ears to learn about his environment when he is working in hazardous conditions. For example, he might be listening carefully for the cries of people who need help or straining to see the outlines of people in smoke-filled rooms.

Researchers discovered that in extreme conditions it was hard for firefighters to process additional information through the senses of sight and sound, said Prescott. Taking advantage of the sense of touch, however, allowed firefighters process additional information more effectively.

Researchers also discovered that the helmet was the best place to attach the vibrating pads because signals sent to the firefighter’s forehead enabled him to respond more quickly. Plus, this configuration would leave a firefighter’s hands free for other work.

According to the SCentRo team, the prototype helmet was created using a Rosenbauer helmet given to the center by Northfire Ltd.