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UK Scientists Develop Helmet to Help Firefighters 'See' in the Dark

Update Date: Mar 30, 2013 08:19 PM EDT

British researchers have devised the prototype of a tactile helmet which uses vibrations to help on-duty firefighters find their way through dark or smoke-filled conditions.

Developed at the University of Sheffield Centre for Robotics (SCentRo), the helmet was inspired by the study of touch-related sensing of rodents who use their whiskers as an early-warning system against potential hazards.

The devise is rigged with a large number of ultrasound sensors used to detect the distance between the person wearing the headgear and nearby obstacles, including walls. The ultrasound sensors emit signals to vibration pads attached to the inside of the helmet – pads which touch the forehead of the person wearing it.

In other words, the closer a firefighter gets to an obstacle, the more a pad will vibrate to let the firefighter know that something's nearby.

Tony Prescott, professor and director of the Sheffield Centre for Robotics, wrote in a statement: "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. 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 scientists used a donated a Rosenbauer-brand firefighting helmet to develop the prototype, and it took two years of work funded by funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop it.

Why the helmet? Well, the researchers justify the placement of the vibrating pads on the helmet because it allows the firefigters to respond more quickly to the signals than placing them, say, on the hand. Likewise, not placing them on the hand would keep the firefighter hands free to carry through potentially life-saving tasks.

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