NEC develops new Smart Mask for firefighters

14-02-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, Japanese electronics maker NEC announced the development of a new smart mask that can aid firefighters in critical scenarios. What challenges do firefighters face, what has NEC developed, and how will smart technologies aid rescue operations in the future?

What challenges do firefighters face?

There are very few who can truly understand and appreciate the difficulty firefighters face on the job. Rescuing children from burning buildings, pulling out families of cars that have been crushed, and trying to locate those who may have fallen into rivers and lakes are just a few of the horrors that firefighters can face at any time. During these high-stress scenarios, it is critical that firefighters focus on the task and their own safety, the status of their equipment, and the environment around them.

For example, a multi-story residential building on fire will easily have air temperatures exceeding 500˚C, and someone trapped inside is surrounded by thick smoke, flames, and falling debris. Even with a mask on, visibility is incredibly poor, the surrounding structure is compromised, and any exposed skin can react with harmful compounds being released from melting plastic.

While technology could provide firefighters with a massive advantage, implementing any electronic-based system would face so many difficulties. For one, using equipment in extremely harsh conditions would put an enormous amount of thermal and mechanical stress on circuits and sensors, something that only high-end industrial and aerospace electronics are capable of. This need for high-end electronics creates the second challenge, cost; a system designed for such environments may be too expensive to implement in scale.

NEC developing smart masks for use with firefighters

Recognising the challenges firefighters face, Japanese electronics manufacturer NEC has recently announced its development of a smart mask for firefighters that would give them an edge in rescue operations. The first major piece of equipment on the prototype mask is seeing through smoke using infrared cameras. These IR cameras are connected to small displays that allow the firefighter to see those who may be trapped under debris while simultaneously allowing them to see heat flow (this could be used to identify rooms that are at risk of backdraft – a room that explodes due to superheated gasses).

The use of small displays near the eyes also allows the firefighter to see the amount of oxygen left in their tanks. This will allow firefighters to make better-informed decisions on how much longer they can safely look for survivors and provide oxygen to survivors. Furthermore, the mask integrates radio communications that share data with commanders so that they can communicate and check on each firefighter's condition and warn them of potential dangers that they may have not seen.

How smart technologies will aid search and rescue

The ability for smart technologies to transform lives seems to have no limits, and the use of smart technologies in search and rescue operations will play a vital role in the future. Whether it is an earthquake, tsunami, fire, or storm, smart technologies, including IoT and AI, can collect large amounts of data and make sense of it.

While humans are limited in their senses, an AI connected to a camera on a helicopter can take a single large image and identify every single pixel. From there, it can then recognise objects in that image, including those that may be humanoid in shape and/or colour. The same type of technology could be integrated into the masks being developed by NEC, whereby AI can be used to identify where people may be trapped and recognise immediate danger.

Smart technologies will not only improve our ability to identify those in need of help, but it will also help to improve the safety of those risking their lives to save others.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.