A specially-adapted 'tactile helmet', developed by researchers at the University of Sheffield, could provide fire-fighters operating in challenging conditions with vital clues about their surroundings.
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, who might be working in dark conditions or in buildings filled with smoke, will be able to use the signals to find walls and other obstacles that could help guide them through unfamiliar environments.
It is anticipated that a lightweight version of the technology could also be useful to people with visual impairments, acting as an additional 'sense' to guide users or to help them avoid hazards.
Invented by a team of researchers at the Sheffield Centre for Robotics (SCentRo), the helmet was inspired by research into tactile sensing in rodents, whose whiskers give early warning of potential hazards.
Professor Tony Prescott of the University of Sheffield and director of SCentRo, said: "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 team also found that the helmet was the ideal place to locate the vibrating pads because, although the fingertips might seem a more obvious choice, stimuli delivered to the wearer's forehead enabled them to respond more rapidly to the signals, and would also leave their 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, 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 will be on show at this year's Gadget Show Live, to be held at the NEC in Birmingham from 3-7 April 2013. For more information go to: http://www.gadgetshowlive.net/.
Notes for Editors:
1. The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield - the 2011 Times Higher Education's University of the Year - is one of the largest in the UK. Its seven departments include over 4,000 students and 900 staff and have research-related income worth more than £50M per annum from government, industry and charity sources. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) confirmed that two thirds of the research carried out was either Internationally Excellent or Internationally Leading.
The Faculty of Engineering has a long tradition of working with industry including Rolls-Royce, Network Rail and Siemens. Its industrial successes are exemplified by the award-winning Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and the new £25 million Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC).
The Faculty of Engineering is set to ensure students continue to benefit from world-class labs and teaching space through the provision of the University's new Engineering Graduate School. This brand new building, which will become the centre of the faculty's postgraduate research and postgraduate teaching activities, will be sited on the corner of Broad Lane and Newcastle Street. It will form the first stage in a 15 year plan to improve and extend the existing estate in a bid to provide students with the best possible facilities while improving their student experience
To find out more about the Faculty of Engineering, visit: http://www.shef.ac.uk/faculty/engineering/.
3. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.
The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via research Councils UK.