Disorientation inside smoke-filled and unfamiliar buildings can be a major obstacle for firefighters – and it's not as if they don't have enough to worry about already. Researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have addressed this problem by developing fancy footwear that allows firefighters to be tracked in places where GPS fails, including up to 25 m (82 ft) below ground.

The digital positioning system developed by Peter Händel, John-Olof Nilsson and Jouni Ranta Kokko consists of a processor and sensors, such as an accelerometer and gyroscope. The system is fitted into the heel of a boot, where it can withstand shock and extremely high temperatures and keep working where GPS technology fails.

Data gathered from the sensors is transmitted to operational command via a wireless module worn on the shoulder. This allows emergency commanders to keep track of individual firefighters' location and movements and direct them out of harm's way or safely to where they are needed. The researchers say the sensor shoe has been successfully tested with real firefighters in real time and at depths of 25 m (82 ft) below ground.

“When the firefighters can work safer and more efficiently, they can also save more lives,” says Händel, who is a Professor of Signal Processing at KTH.

The planned "next step" for the researchers is to embed the sensors in the sole, which they say will increase the flexibility of the system and open it up to more uses, including generating its own power supply. The ultimate aim is to create a sensor sole that is thin enough to be used in ordinary shoes.

The team says such digital positioning footwear could also find other uses, such as with police, paramedics, military response forces and even sportspeople. With its ability to work below ground, it could also find applications in mining, providing the ability to locate workers and rescue teams without requiring extensive infrastructure.

The research project was conducted in collaboration with the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), Swedish rescue services and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore.

Source: KTH