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Tactical Spatial Audio: Clarity in the Chaos by Will Martin

Spatial audio empowers quick, effective decisions amid the madness of war

Only two months removed from the attacks on 9/11, U.S. Special Operations personnel found themselves in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan, converting caves into makeshift barracks and command centers. After a week of heavy bombing, U.S. commanders determined they weren’t much closer to achieving their objective of toppling Mazer-e-Sharif, a strategic Taliban stronghold. So, they inserted Tactical Air Controllers into the Afghan mountains, with the expectation they would offer precise targeting for land and air forces.

What those combat controllers encountered, however, was the madness of war. 

“The whole situation is like the Flintstones meet the Jetsons,” said a U.S. Special Forces officer, at the time. The challenge of bridging the gaps in technology, culture, and communication platforms between U.S. and ally forces, he said, seemed insurmountable.

Sleeping amid the rocks, combat controllers worked to coordinate movements across an array of voices —unit commanders, tactical aircraft overhead, and U.S. and friendly Afghan troops advancing on the ground—some of whom were mounted on horseback.

“It was the first American cavalry charge of the 21st Century,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reported to Congress.

The Bedrock of Effective Communication
Ultimately, Mazer-e-Sharif fell, resulting in the first major victory by U.S. and ally forces in the Afghanistan war. Ingenuity and effective communication on the part of combat controllers proved pivotal in the U.S. victory, but it also highlighted the maddening layers of information these operators face amid operations.

“Effective, timely communication is fundamental to battlefield success, especially in a special operations environment, said Clay Richardson, Business Development Manager - SOCOM/DOD for OTTO Engineering, a leading manufacturer of tactical audio technology. “In the course of a day’s work, combat controllers might call in an airstrike, set up a landing zone, and coordinate a humanitarian drop. The communication required to execute all that—in hostile territory, mind you—it can overwhelm even the most capable operator.”

TAC-P and JTAC operators, for instance, often operate in isolation as they communicate simultaneously with several U.S. and international military components. Their ability to distinguish between a cascading series of voices—what audiologists call stream segregation—is critical to mission success. Amid the duress of combat, lives hang in the balance.

“When you’re in the field, there’s this spider web of information in your headset,” said Richardson. “Your ability to untangle those voices and act quickly on that information can be the difference between mission success and the loss of life.”

The Spatial Audio Difference
Spatial audio has emerged as the technology that makes stream segregation a reality. By empowering tactical operators to navigate competing voices in a combat environment, OTTO Engineering stands at the forefront of the tactical spatial audio landscape. 

“Spatial audio plays on a natural ability we all exercise in our daily lives,” said Dan Stanek, Vice President & General Manager of the Communications business unit for OTTO. “Even though we’re bombarded with stimuli, we filter through voices and noises, instinctively locking in on what’s important. Well, spatial audio zeroes in on that ability and translates it to the battlefield.”

By assigning incoming voices a specific, physical space in an operator’s headset, OTTO’s Enhanced Spatial Positioning Push-to-Talk, or E.S.P. PTT, enables operators to sift through overlapping communications. Aircraft pilots, ground forces, foreign allies—each voice inhabits a designated space, providing a 3-D audio experience. A cognitive muscle memory develops, the user reflexively recognizing the source and importance of information based on its headset location. 

“Spatial audio, and the E.S.P. PTT specifically, eliminates stacked audio,” said Stanek. “Instead of layering all these voices on top of each other in both ears at the same time, your headset is home to four distinctive communication channels. I can’t overstate its impact on quick, effective decision-making for a combat controller.”

Designed with the individual operator in mind, OTTO’s E.S.P. PTT is compatible with major communication platforms common in most aircraft and ground vehicle systems. With a capacity for software and firmware upgrades, it can also evolve alongside an operator’s tactical communication needs. 

“With OTTO's mission of continuous innovation, we’re tireless in ensuring we field tools as dynamic as the missions that require them,” said Stanek. “As the military embraces spatial audio, it’s going change the battlefield. More importantly, it’s going to save lives.”

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