A cutting-edge sensory helmet developed by UK researchers helps firefighters navigate through dark rooms, relying on vibration pads in the helmet that indicate the location of walls and other obstacles in an unfamiliar environment.
The prototype for this "tactile helmet," developed by researchers at the University of Sheffield, is on display at this week's Gadget Show Live in England. It's the product of two years of testing and research, including observations of the ultra-sensitive whiskers of mice and cats, which allow them to sense the outlines of their environment.
The Sheffield Centre for Robotics (SCentRo) researchers are now looking for a commercial partner to help them scale-up a technology with the potential to save lives.
"The device is at an early stage of development—our next challenge is to refine the technology so it is reliable and intuitive," Dr. Tom Stafford, lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield, tells Healthline.
The helmet also has applications beyond firefighting, including the potential to help guide those with visual impairments by alerting them to hazards in their path.
"We've been inspired by our study of sensing in the natural world," says Stafford. "We hope our device will help people who have to work in places where they can't rely on their eyes."
Stafford's design team initially observed rodents, whose whiskers alert them to nearby hazards.
"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 Dr. Tony Prescott, director of SCentRo, in a press release.
Developed with assistance from the the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, the tactile helmet has ultrasound sensors that detect the distance to nearby walls. Vibration pads fitted on the inside of the helmet touch the wearer's forehead and thus help guide firefighters through dark, fire-filled buildings.
"We found that in these circumstances it was difficult to process additional information through [the eyes and ears]. Using the sense of touch, however, we were able to deliver additional information effectively," said Prescott.