Intelligent helmet gives fire-fighters sixth sense

Sensory helmet for firefighters

We've developed a specially-adapted helmet that could provide fire-fighters with vital clues in an emergency and help save lives.

The helmet is fitted with a number of ultrasound sensors that are used to detect the distances between the helmet and nearby walls or other obstacles.

These signals are transmitted to vibration pads that are attached to the inside of the helmet, touching the wearer's forehead.

Rescue workers, such as fire-fighters, working in dark conditions or in buildings filled with smoke, will be able to use the signals to guide them past obstacles in unfamiliar environments.

A lightweight version of the technology could also be useful to people with visual impairments. It could act as an additional sense to guide users or to help them avoid hazards.

A team of researchers from Sheffield Robotics invented the helmet. It's inspired by research into tactile sensing in rodents, whose whiskers give early warning of potential hazards.

Professor Tony Prescott, from our Department of Psychology and director of Sheffield Robotics, said: "When firefighters are responding to an emergency situation they will be using their eyes and ears to make sense of their environment. They'll be 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 team also found that the helmet was the ideal place to locate the vibrating pads.

Professor Prescott added: "Although fingertips might seem a more obvious choice, stimuli delivered to the wearer's forehead enabled them to respond more rapidly to the signals. Using this technology on a helmet also leaves the wearer’s 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.

The helmet has been demonstrated at the Gadget Show Live, at the Birmingham NEC, prior to going to the Living Machines exhibition at the Science Museum in London.