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Life-saving shoes

Published Jan 14, 2014

Positioning technology developed at KTH will save lives and protect emergency responders in hazardous environments.

Firefighters test the positioning system 25 metres underground. (Photo: Erik Groundstroem)

Fire, smoke and zero visibility – a firefighter’s working environment is extreme. Now, with sensor-equipped footwear developed at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, firefighters can be even more effective at saving lives and property.

An innovative digital positioning system that uses sensors inside the heel of a boot makes it possible for emergency commanders to follow firefighters’ movements independently of infrastructure, and even 25 metres below ground.

Behind the project are Peter Händel, Professor of Signal Processing, John-Olof Nilsson, a researcher at KTH, and Jouni Rantakokko, a KTH researcher and research leader at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).

The system they designed includes advanced sensors such as accelerometer and gyroscope, plus a processor. It can withstand shock and extremely high temperatures and remains operational where GPS positioning systems fail.

A drawing of the sole now in development.

A wireless module worn on the shoulder sends the data to operational command. The precise information about responders’ location and movements enables emergency coordinators to control operations remotely and ensure that the firefighters remain effective and safe under extremely dangerous conditions.

“When the firefighters can work safer and more efficiently, they can also save more lives,” says Peter Händel, Professor of Signal Processing at KTH, one of those who worked on the development of the sensor shoe.

The system has been tested successfully with firefighters in real time, 25 metres below ground.

The positioning capability can also be used by others – such as police and military response forces, or medical services at major incidents. Even rescue work far below the ground, as in mines, can be facilitated by being able to position both workers and rescue teams without the need for extensive infrastructure.

The next step for the researchers is to make the sensors part of the sole, which would increase flexibility and open up more uses than when built into the heel. The idea is also that the sole will also generate its own power supply. The aim is also that the sole can be thin enough for use in ordinary shoes.

The research project on the management system is in collaboration with the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), Swedish rescue services and with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore.

More areas where positioning technology can help

The small sensor in the shoe carefully measures the movement of the foot and direction changes. It does not matter if wearer walks, runs, jumps or crawls. So, there are more potential uses for the technology.

  • Researchers in behaviour can take advantage of data on movements and migrations. 
  • Symptoms suggestive of Parkinson's disease include stability problems, which can be identified at an early stage.
  • With data on how a person moves in daily life, doctors can get an indication of how a patient feels or how well it works for an elderly person who wants to live at home longer, through analysis of how the movement looks and how long it takes to get around. A signal can be sent to the patient that it is time for change, such as using a cane or walker. Or it can be connected to other medical devices or drugs.
  • Sports is another area where positioning technology can be useful. With a detailed picture of the movement and information about foot movements, the athlete can measure their own movements and analyse whether these can be optimised to improve performance or to reduce damage.

For more information contact Peter Händel, Professor of Signal Processing at KTH: (+46) 70-288 75 95 or

Jenny Axäll