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Making the Bullet Louder: New "3-D Audio" Gives Pilots a Multisensory Heads-Up

It’s the bottom of the ninth, the batter hits a foul ball into the crowd and someone yells, “Look out!” The first reaction of a spectator in danger is to look toward the person yelling, not the ball.

But what if the ball itself made noise? A new “3-D Audio” system for military pilots does exactly that, alerting aviators to the exact direction and type of threat coming toward them. The same system also makes radio channels sound like they’re coming from different directions, helping pilots better monitor radio traffic.

The technology from Raytheon solves a serious problem for warfighters, said J.D. Hill, a program engineer for the Waltham, Mass.-based defense company.

Current warning technology requires pilots to look at and interpret a visual display before deciding what to do. Raytheon’s 3-D Audio, meanwhile, generates "geospatial" sounds to indicate threats.

“You always hear them from where they actually are,” Hill said. “You don’t have to interpret anything. It’s all just about reaction and what you hear.”

Raytheon’s system even senses when pilots turn their heads and moves the computer-generated sound accordingly, Hill said.

3-D Audio also allows pilots to better monitor multiple radio channels, said Todd Lovell, a Raytheon engineer and former V-22 Osprey pilot.

“Pilots for years have been listening to three or four radios, and when two people would talk at the same time, it would just come across garbled,” Lovell said. “With the 3-D Audio, we can put those radios in different spatial locations relative to your head.”

Pilots could set up their radios so a co-pilot’s voice comes from the side, a passenger’s voice comes from behind, and the voice of an air traffic controller comes from ahead of the aircraft.

“Just like we can understand one conversation in a crowded room, you can concentrate on that one conversation and listen to that radio,” Lovell said.

The 3D Audio technology is part of a suite of situational awareness designed to make pilots all-knowing and all-seeing.

Raytheon’s Customized Engineering and Depot Support stitches together views collected by sensors arranged around the outside an aircraft. The technology gives pilots a “glass ball” view through dust, snow – and even the floor of their cockpits.

The company’s Center Display Unit is a drop-in replacement that brings state-of-the-art sensor displays to older aircraft including the popular F-16.

The Aviation Warrior wearable computer, meanwhile, allows pilots to bring all of these technologies with them even if they leave the cockpit.

The products work together to use a pilot’s senses to the fullest, Hill said.

“When you can add that technology to the cockpit, it just enhances everything that a pilot can do,” Hill said.

Last Updated: 11/17/2014

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