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Firefighters and rescue workers have a lot working against them while battling blazes or searching through rubble. It’s hard to see and hear, plus their protective gear, while incredibly important, is desensitizing. A new tactile helmet developed by researchers at the Sheffield Centre for Robotics could give these life savers an extra sense of touch. Like mouse whiskers (or curb feelers), the distance-detecting sensors in the helmet cause pads to vibrate in the helmet, alerting the wearer to nearby surfaces. This early warning system could help them navigate and move faster in dark and smoky places without running into walls.

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The vibrating helmet was designed to give firefighters and other rescue workers additional sensory information about their surrounding environment. Using a Rosenbauer helmet donated by Northfire Ltd, the team from Sheffield Centre for Robotics outfitted it with new technology that gives the wearer additional tactile information to help navigate. The helmet features a number of ultrasound sensors that detect distances between the helmet and surrounding surfaces. This information is then translated into vibrations created through pads next to the wearer’s head, which help them navigate quicker and safer through unfamiliar environments.

The Sheffield researchers have been also working with the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service team for the last couple of years. Through testing with rescuers, it was found that stimuli to the head was more effective than to the hand and allowed the wearer to respond more quickly to signals. It also left their hands available for other tasks. Next up will be to convert the prototype into a working model that can be manufactured on a larger scale. Researchers also expect that a lighter weight version could be adapted to those with visual disabilities and help them navigate faster in unfamiliar spaces.

+ Press Release

+ Sheffield Centre for Robotics