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Clearing the Air by Will Martin

OTTO’s E.S.P. PTT empowers clear communication and improved decision-making for tactical air controllers. 

Running is like breathing for a military special operator. The rigor of their work demands it. So, when Joe O’Keefe joined other Air Force Combat Controllers to pound the pavement near Fort Bragg, he couldn’t have predicted how the day would change the trajectory of his service. That day was 9/11.

“One of the PJs (Air Force Pararescueman) grabbed a vehicle and flagged us all down and we went back to the team room,” O’Keefe said during a Patriot to the Core podcast in January 2024. “(We were) looking at the TV all perplexed, like, ‘How could this happen?’… We knew very quickly we’d be out on our way somewhere.”

That somewhere was the mountains of Afghanistan. Only a few months after the attacks on the Twin Towers, O’Keefe found himself in a four-man team near the Pakistan border, overlooking the caves of Tora Bora. The labyrinth of caverns and hollows beneath them was teeming with hundreds of Al Qaeda. 

O’Keefe went on to conduct an orchestra of aerial hellfire that would last several days. At his disposal were dozens of fighter jets, bombers, and a drone pulled from across the Armed Forces. He executed a masterclass in combat control, directing the deployment of nearly 700,000 pounds of explosives, devastating the enemy.

“I’ve got multiple radio nets going simultaneously,” O’Keefe told Task & Purpose in 2021, reflecting on the maddening communication. “One for friendly forces on the ground, a satellite for AWACS, and a tactical frequency for speaking with bombers and fighters.”

As a Combat Controller, or CCT, O’Keefe belongs to a family of military operators tasked with controlling tactical airspace, which can prove an overwhelming chore. While for some, like the Air Force’s CCT and TACP (Tactical Air Control Party), it’s a career field, for others, it’s a certification, like Army Rangers and Green Berets or Marine and NATO special operations personnel who attend JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) training.

“Not only are they expected to tell aircraft from a variety of armed forces when and where to strike, but they also have to make sure those aircraft are not colliding,” said Mark Batts, Product Manager for OTTO Communications, a leading designer and manufacturer of tactical communication equipment. “All this, while maintaining situational awareness of the battlespace on the ground. It’s a daunting task.” 

O’Keefe, for example, had so many aircraft in play that he “stacked” them in 1,000-foot intervals, at one point forming a 21-interval ladder of aircraft cascading from the airspace over Tora Bora.

“You can imagine the cognitive overload one encounters in trying to coordinate and communicate with that many assets, not to mention trying to stay hidden from the enemy,” said Batts. “All these voices bouncing around in your headset and over multiple radio platforms, it’s a formula for chaos if you don’t gain some clarity.”

With that clarity in mind, OTTO developed the Enhanced Spatial Positioning Push-to-Talk. The E.S.P. PTT operates off the principle of stream segregation by assigning incoming communication streams to four distinct quadrants in the operator’s headset. Rather than experiencing incoming audio streams as competing, overlapping voices, the user can identify and prioritize messages based on their position in the headset.

“E.S.P. untangles the web of voices a TACP, CCT, or JTAC regularly encounters,” said Batts. “There’s a mental muscle memory that quickly comes into play. The user knows, for example, that his lead B-1 bomber is assigned to his upper right quadrant, while his F-15 squadron’s communication is going to come from his lower left quadrant. Headquarters comms might occupy another quadrant, and ground forces, another.”

Traditional audio technology and headsets force multiple audio streams into the user’s ears simultaneously, leading to cognitive fatigue and retention loss. But by utilizing spatial audio technology, which mimics how our brains process and prioritize sound in everyday life, the E.S.P. PTT empowers users to focus on individual audio sources, even amid competing voices. 

“Spatial audio is like hearing in 3D,” said Batts. “It creates a separation that translates to battlespace clarity. The result is improved decision-making and, ultimately, mission success.”

The E.S.P. PTT is also compatible with all major radio platforms and—true to the mission complexities of a JTAC, CCT, or TACP—it offers compatibility with both vehicular and air-based intercoms.

“Water-resistant, rugged, even ambidextrous in design, E.S.P. was built for the field,” said Batts. “It should be standard issue for any tactical aircraft controller.”

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