Rats inspire superhelmet

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Firefighters battling through smoke and fumes could soon be able to see in the dark thanks to a new ‘tactile helmet’ being developed at Sheffield University.

The device could help rescue workers of all kinds 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.

Signals are transmitted to vibration pads that are attached to the inside of the helmet, touching the wearer’s forehead.

Rescue workers will be able to use the signals to find walls and other obstacles that could help guide them through unfamiliar environments.

It is hoped that a lightweight version of the technology could also be useful to people with visual impairments, acting as an additional ‘sense’ to guide them or to help them avoid hazards.

The prototype helmet has been invented by a team from the Sheffield Centre for Robotics, who were inspired by research into rodents, whose whiskers give early warning of potential hazards.

Professor Tony Prescott said: “When a firefighter is responding to an emergency he will be using his eyes and ears to make out objects in a smoke-filled room, or straining to hear sounds from people who might need rescuing.

“Using the sense of touch we were able to deliver additional information effectively.”