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Will Smart Exit signs light the way to safer buildings?

Will Smart Exit signs light the way to safer buildings?

ABSTRACT: Would you trust a robot to lead you to safety in an emergency? What design would best attract your attention in a smoke-filled environment? How should the robot behave to best increase your trust?  — Questions from a recent Georgia Tech research study.


by LEE RANKIN, FieldLens | Aug 12, 2015

We’re all taught at a young age to quickly and calmly leave buildings when we hear a fire alarm or see flashing emergency lights. Highly visible exit signs have helped save countless lives during perilous events like fires and earthquakes. But one critical flaw still exists in many evacuation procedures: While exiting, people are often unaware if they are steering clear of danger — or heading straight for it.

A potential solution for this life-threatening dilemma is a smart emergency exit lighting system that utilizes technology to route people to safety. But are designers and builders ready to incorporate smart emergency exit signs into the life safety infrastructure of commercial buildings?

Smart emergency exit lighting systems now appear positioned to be well-received by the general public. Researchers are now trying to make them viable. Here are two examples of current prototypes:

Dynamic LED Signs

Similar in design to traditional exit signs, this LED-enhanced version (shown above) is linked to a system of environmental sensors that detect smoke and temperature changes. During emergency situations, the system identifies the hazard area, determines the safest route, and then appropriately illuminates exit signs to guide people out of the building.

Developed by the EU-funded GETAWAY Project, this system was tested at a train station in Barcelona. Test subjects were 103% more likely to notice the dynamic signs. Decision time improved by 44%.

Evacuation Robots

As tall as a human and adorned with arrows and lights, these evacuation robots are stored in buildings and then activated during emergencies. With humans providing instructions, they guide people to the safest exits, search for injured individuals and serve as resources for emergency responders.

These concept robots (pictured above) are the idea of researchers at Georgia Tech. In simulations, people evacuated a building faster when a robot was leading them toward an exit.

At a glance, smart emergency exit systems appear to be a big win for safety. But changing the form and function of familiar exit signage can introduce new risks. And safety codes would need to be updated to account for this new technology. But if confidence rises in their ability to save lives and make buildings safer, then smart exit signs—and perhaps even robots—may be a common sight in future buildings.

This article first appeared Aug. 7 at the FieldLens blog, Building Better.

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