'Tactile' helmet could aid firefighters

March 29, 2013 at 4:21 PM

SHEFFIELD, England, March 29 (UPI) -- British researchers are developing a "tactile helmet" with sensory input to help give firefighters in challenging conditions clues about their surroundings.

Scientists at the University of Sheffield say the helmet is equipped with a number of ultrasound sensors used to detect the distances between the helmet and nearby walls or other obstacles and send signals to vibration pads attached to the inside of the helmet, touching the wearer's forehead.

Firefighters working in dark conditions or in buildings filled with smoke could use the signals to find walls and other obstacles to navigate safely through unfamiliar environments, a Sheffield release said Friday.

Researchers said the helmet was inspired by research into tactile sensing in rodents, whose whiskers give early warning of potential 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," Tony Prescott of the university's Center for Robotics said.

"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."

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