Air Force

Free space optical headset with integrated hearing protection

Wireless, non-RF communication system utilizing free-space optics to link personnel wearing same type headphones

Communications Photonics Military Technology

Air Force scientist Michael R. Sedillo developed a headset for instances where RF-based communications would be hazardous, time-consuming, or interfere with operations. The patented technology is available via license agreement to companies that would make, use, or sell it commercially.

Hearing protection mitigates the impact of excessive noise and is often layered to provide necessary additive protection, such as earplugs combined with over-the-ear earmuffs. Alternative solutions like active noise reduction systems transmit sound-canceling noise to reduce overall noise levels. Each of these noise defeat approaches hamper communication.

Radio-frequency communication is highly effective in transmitting messages long distances but requires users to switch between common and private channels. This is cumbersome when short messages are conveyed face-to-face during high-tempo activities such as an aircraft launch, in-flight patient care, or high-noise manufacturing environments. Additionally, radio emissions could cause an explosion when working with open fuel tanks, or interfere with sensitive electronic equipment such as aircraft avionics.

In these instances, individuals may remove their hearing protection to relay verbal messages, exposing themselves to dangerous noise levels, or they may use their noise protection but struggle with resulting miscommunications.

The Air Force Medical Services has now addressed these challenges with a system that includes integrated hearing protection and communications modules that utilize free-space optics. Each headset includes mounted hearing protection cups to attenuate incoming sound waves external to the headset. If a user wants to relay a message, the microphone converts the sound waves into a corresponding analog signal, which is then digitized by the electro-optical converter. The digital signal is then output as a light signal by the optical transmitter. FSO transceivers wirelessly transmit data using fast-pulsing light-emitting diodes and can vary their transmission fields-of-view and range by either tuning the optics or by varying the power applied to the LEDs. Transceivers can be worn on various parts of clothing such that communicators need not be facing each other.

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