New helmet could save firefighters from being left in the dark

Sensory helmet provides means of maintaining orientation in low visibility conditions

University research has resulted in a special tactile helmet that may give firefighters working in dark, smoky, dangerous conditions vital clues about their surroundings to help them maintain orientation.

The helmet, designed at the UK’s University of Sheffield, is fitted with several ultrasound sensors that transmit signals that are used to determine the distances between the helmet and walls or other nearby objects.

When the signals rebound off of the walls, they are sensed by vibration pads that are attached to the inside of the helmet's head band, in constant contact with wearer's forehead.

Rescue workers, such as firefighters, who might be working in dark conditions or in buildings filled with smoke, will be able to use the signals to find walls and other obstacles that could help guide them through difficult surroundings.

“The tactile helmet allows users to move around safely in environments where their vision is impaired,” said professor Tony Prescott, director of Sheffield’s Centre for Robotics.

Prescott said the helmet extends the sense of touch into the region of space surrounding the head, rather similar to how it would be if those wearing the helmet had facial feelers that protrude several inches, like cat whiskers.

Search and rescue crews are currently at risk of becoming lost or disoriented while searching close quarters in darkness, in smoke, in collapsed buildings or in cave-ins and other environments where visibility is reduced or completely eliminated.

“The tactile helmet will enable faster and safer searches by providing responders with improved awareness of their surroundings,” Prescott said.

“The helmet will be particularly useful for initial exploration of hazardous sites with high density smoke or dust.”

Prescott and his team found the helmet-forehead interface was a more favorable place to position the vibrating pads because, although the fingertips might seem a more obvious choice, stimuli delivered to the wearer's forehead enabled wearers to respond more rapidly to signals. Placing the pads on the forehead also leaves hands free for other tasks.

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