Firefighters can quite often find themselves in smoke-filled rooms, where it’s impossible to see more than a few inches in any direction. Not wanting those firefighters to run into walls, researchers at the University of Sheffield have created a prototype helmet that vibrates against the wearer’s forehead, letting them know the location of nearby obstacles.

The Sheffield Centre for Robotics (SCentRo) scientists started with an existing conventional Rosenbauer firefighting helmet, and equipped it with a series of ultrasound sensors and vibrational pads.

By sending out pulses of ultrasound and analyzing their echoes, the sensors are able to detect the presence and proximity of objects such as walls. In response, the pad(s) facing in the direction of the object are activated, providing the user with a tactile directional alert.

The system was inspired by rodents’ ability to find their way around in the dark using their whiskers.

It was decided that touch was the best of the senses for the system to utilize, as a firefighter’s senses of sight and sound are already under heavy use in an emergency situation. Additionally, the forehead was chosen as the location for the pads because it frees up the wearer’s hands, and allows for quicker responses to the vibrational cues.

The SCentRo team is now looking for a partner company interested in commercializing the technology. A lightweight version of the system could conceivably also find use as a means of guiding the visually impaired.

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