The Future Of Pilot Headsets

The Future Of Pilot Headsets

UPDATED :  

Headset manufacturers are traditionally coy about developments in technology. Regardess, we ask four manufacturers about their plans for the future.

You don't feel much like flying anymore. The air coming through the dicky window is supposed to be cool, but this could fry dim sims.

Three hours behind you and one hour to run to your destination. The gauges all look good; the autopilot is holding the heading. You got a good feed at your last fuel stop and you've been drinking plenty of water. All that's OK, but your head is real worry.

You're sure your ears are bright red, there's sweat pouring out from beneath the ear cups and you feel like you're wearing a G-clamp not a headset. You'd love to take them off for just one minute, but the cockpit noise would only make the situation worse. What price now the $200 headset?

For those of us squirting around the sky with basic headsets on, the above is a horribly familiar scenario that usually ends with us swearing we're going to upgrade to a unit with the latest technology, because that is the only way we are going to make long journeys more comfortable.

It hasn't always been this way; in days of aviation yore aviation headsets were convenient but uncomfortable and that's just the way it was. The alternative was to keep using the hand mic. In 2014 we have headsets with unbelievable clarity, amazing noise canceling and are designed to sit pat on your head with a minimum of fuss. In some cases there isn't even a cord anymore.

For that, we have to thank the R & D departments of headset manufacturers who are constantly looking to make the product better and-believe it or not—wiser.

Bose Pilot Headsets

Bose A20 Aviation Headset For Sale Online

"The goal we put before our engineering teams is to create technologies that overcome real world problems," explains Bose Senior Product Manager for Aviation and Military Headsets, Matt Ruwe.

"In the case of aviation headsets, the work has resulted in helping to eliminate conventional trade-offs in performance. For example, the Bose Aviation Headset X and our latest offering, the A20 Aviation Headset, show how our engineering teams looked at traditional means of reducing the annoyance and fatigue caused by engine noises.

"Conventional practice has been to provide headsets with more clamping force or weight to lock the noise away from your ear, but the unfortunate trade-off was discomfort.

The Bose engineering team developed ways to create quiet while drastically improving comfort by the use of active noise canceling technology and has been awarded many patents to achieve just this.

Achieving the right balance of quiet, comfort and clarity has been an ongoing goal of Bose since they launched the first active noise canceling headset 25 years ago, an anniversary that coincides with Oshkosh 2014, "Since then, we have developed many innovations that have continued to extend the performance levels of active noise cancellation without sacrificing comfort," Ruwe says.

Improvements in processing capability, microphone technology, acoustic design and even materials technology have been able to provide meaningful improvements to what most people now consider fairly standard technology.

Over the last three decades many different engineering disciplines at Bose have been applied to improve everything from manufacturing technology to basic materials science as well as mechanical, electrical and acoustic engineering.

In the future, you can expect Bose to continue to lead the industry with technology that provides a superior balance of comfort, performance, and intelligibility by investing in all of the disciplines needed to make sure the technology and capability continues to improve.

"Examples of new capabilities that Bose has been bringing to market in the consumer world include the first in-ear noise cancelling headphone called the QC20. This innovative product, meant for everyday listeners, has been winning accolades from users around the world since its introduction just a few months ago."

That's all good, but surely one of the no-brainer developments will be headsets without annoying cords that get tangled in our feet, around our necks and are usually the cause of bad communication;? The answer from Matt Ruwe is a bit cloudy.

"One of the most common questions and requests we get from customers is a desire knows what we are working on and what the next product' will be. In addition, specific related questions we often hear are related to customers' desire for more comfort or for a wireless solution.

"It seems these requests-as well as other fit related requests- are manifestations and desires from customers who really want to remove the constraints of a typical headset.

Of course these constraints are significant, as pilots are usually unwilling to allow any less reliability that is offered by the wired solutions today and are less thrilled about putting additional weight on their head (which may be needed in a wireless headset which requires batteries).

"You can be sure that Bose is working hard on future solutions to improve the cockpit experience for the pilot and for their passengers."

EQ1 Pilot Headsets

EQ-1 Wireless Pilot Headset

From the wilds of Western Australia has comes the EQ1 headset. This bit of home-built innovation is one of the few wireless aviation headsets around, but the lack of wires does not equate to the lack of technology.

The EQ1 is the brain-child of Western Australian pilot and physicist Gary Sergeant, who specialises in radio frequency systems. Unsatisfied with the headset that came with his microlight, he developed his own wireless unit.

Today this Australian company develops its products in line with what users value most. "The feedback we receive from customers it is the perceived noise reduction followed by clarity," says EQ's Gordon Marshall. "As a consequence we tend to focus on total noise reduction and wireless advances."

A big part of the noise reduction comes in the technology in the humble ear cups, which are recognised now as much more than rhe simple buckets presented by older technology.

"Many dollars have been sunk into this area. At EQ1 we chose to design software that will 'map the cave' as we call it. This allows us to map the interior of the cup and thereby deliver active noise reduction (ANR) correctly to the user's ear."

"Some manufacturers tend to rely of ANR as the main source of noise reduction, but remember that this noise reduction is limited to the power of the amplifier and the ability of the speakers to deliver the equal and exact opposite noise, all a bit pointless if the noise exceeds the capability of the ANR of the headset.

"This is why we have chosen a path to make passive noise reduction as high as possible, this way we only need to drive an amp/speaker combo to get rid of the noise that has entered the cup. The result is a wider range of frequencies are addressed and a lower power consumption."

However, most of the major manufacturers have not embraced wireless technology for aviation headsets, which makes you wonder why EQ1 went down this track.

"You could ask Matt Hall this question," Marshall replies. "Having cables slap him in the face during his wild manoeuvres require him to cable tie the headset cable to his harness.

The location of the cable relative to his throat were are a cause for concern in the event of a bail out. He has solved all of these issues by using EQ1 headsets in all of his planes.

"These are, however, extreme situations that most pilots do not encounter, but they do move their head around constantly causing the cable to move around constantly.

We have total freedom of head movement, no catching of the cable, full ability to look over the shoulder left, right and up and down, full freedom to the point of being able to get in and out of the aircraft.

"If you consult a headset repair technician, they will tell you the single most common cause for repair is the cable with broken wires inside."

Lightspeed Pilot Headsets

Lightspeed Zulu PFX Pilot Headset For Sale Online

In the Northern Hemispheres Spring of 2014 (about now) Lightspeed will be releasing their Zulu PFX (personal flight experience), which will incorporate most of the company's latest technology. Teresa De Mers, Lightspeeds Executive VP Sales and Marketing, says the company looked at several aspects on the development path.

"We consider comfort, quiet, clarity and features as the four axes of our design strategy. No one of those things really stands alone as being most important. They all work together, "A headset that's great on noise cancelation but isn't comfortable doesn't really satisfy everything a pilot wants,"

One thing that will characterise state-of-the-art headsets in the future is that they actually tailor themselves to the wearer's ears, and therefore operate slightly differently depending upon the persons ear volume and shape. "It [Zulu PFX] also personalises to the users environment," says De Mers.

"In addition to microphones inside the ear cup, external microphones listen to the outside environment and make continual updates to the quieting experience based on changing sounds in the aircraft.

The headset will continually update for different phases of flight, and if you take the headset from aircraft to aircraft it will update for the aircraft you're in. Taken together, these breakthroughs create a higher bar to ANR technology.

"It is a certain kind of intelligence, because it is constantly listening and processing the information it is receiving over a million times per second. We call the battery box a CPU, because it's really a micro computer that's doing an amazing amount of calculations."

But as De Mers says, the ANR is only part of headset functionality, another being the microphone.

Many of us will remember the days of hand-held microphones, and how we had to free-up one hand at critical times in the circuit to hold the mic to our mouths. Today we press a button on the stick or yoke and just speak up; a more elegant and ergonomic solution.

"There are many different kinds of microphone noise-rejecting technologies out there. The electret works particularly well in aviation.

Pilots are used to having a microphone right in front of their mouths, allowing it to deliver a very efficient and reliable mechanism that's well suited for a high-noise environment.

"Our electret microphone is one of the few on the market that provides pilots with a gain control so they can manually adjust the sensitivity. A person with a soft voice has a harder time breaking squelch than a person with a stronger voice. With a gain control, users can adjust for that.

"As headsets have evolved over time, features have become an important buying point for customers. When we talk about features, it includes advances like wired connectivity to auxiliary devices.

Lightspeed actually was the first to come out with that, followed by wireless connectivity via Bluetooth to phones and other devices. Today when we talk about features, we also talk about our app."

One of the great leaps forward in technology has been provided by the mobile devices like iPads. Lightspeed released their Flightlink app at Oshkosh 2012, an innovation that turns the iPad into a type of cockpit voice recorder.

"The iPad was introduced in 2010 and we saw how quickly it became indispensible to pilots, we asked ourselves and our customers 'how can we leverage this technology to build a better headset?' and the Flightlink cockpit voice recorder was born. Because it has built-in software upgradeability, the PFX technology opens many more doors to flight functionality in the future."

Sennheiser Pilot Headsets

Sennheiser S1 Pilot Headset For Sale Online

A counterpoint to the Lightspeed development process is that of Sennheiser. David Dunlap, Director of Sennheiser Aviation said that their R&D has a clear hierarchy of priorities.

"First and foremost is communications reliability safety and clarity. All other features must support those primary goals. Next is comfort which includes overall weight, distribution of that weight, passive noise reduction, and active noise reduction.

"Noise reduction sufficient to prevent hearing loss is part of the safety baseline-done passively in the Sennheiser S1 family-further noise reduction in the form of active noise cancellation provides comfort due to stress reduction by lowering hearing thresholds to a more comfortable level,"Certainly a headset is firstly a communication device, and should it fail to do that there is little point in luxurious comfort because you won't wear the thing anyway!

As one of the leading aviation headset companies, Sennheiser is constantly looking to redefine the state of the art, but recognises that technology and innovation have to be based on a platform of solid design.

David Dunlap: "Ear-cup design is essential to overall headset performance. The shape of the cup determines fit and comfort as well as passive noise isolation.

The volume of the ear cup and how it seals against the user's head are primary drivers in noise reduction. The materials used in the ear cup and ear seal determine how well a given design will meet its goals of noise reduction and comfort.

"Poor choices of material, design, interface to the microphone boom or head band can introduce leaks or resonances, which defeat the primary purpose of noise isolation."

Manufacturers are relatively tight-lipped about microphones so they don't give away any secrets to their competitors, leaving the industry to offer only guesses about where the technology is going.

"Microphone technology is a Sennheiser core competence. We strive to provide the most natural sound possible given rhe relatively high ambient and acoustic band-limiting nature of the other elements in the pilot's communication chain.

"Designs that enable that today, and that are planned for tomorrow, must remain proprietary."

One of the development mysteries is whether or not to make microphones more or less sensitive. More sensitive means it's easier to break squelch without having to speak forcefully, but the pay-off can be that collateral noise in the cockpit can also trigger the mic.

"I don't think microphone sensitivity is the issue; there are designs for significantly more sensitive microphones available today," says Dunlap. "The most important element is natural-sounding speech in high noise. This is the target for an aviation headset microphone.

"In a high quality headset, the microphone is not the limiting factor to making speech sound natural, it is the limited acoustic bandwidth in the intercom and radio circuits. The goal of the high quality headset microphone is to emphasize the pilot's speech and minimize the ambient noise."

ANR technology revolutionised high-end headsets by dampening unwanted noise, leaving just rhe critical transmissions to come through the ear cups without much interference. However, this technology may have reached a zenith already.

"There are limits to air-conducted noise reduction," Dunlap says. "The limit is somewhere near 50 dB, after which the perceived noise is coming through bone and sinew to the pilot's auditory system.

"An adaptive system such as the S1 Digital extends the traditional reach of active noise reduction to higher frequencies, and adapts the design of the noise reduction circuit to those variables unknown to the headset designer."

Pilot Headsets In The Ideal world

Futuristic Wireless Comfortable Pilot Heasets

Think of perfection. How would we apply it to a headset? Lightweight, lots of noise reduction, comfortable, not annoying, not bulky, not too expensive, reliable and never have to be replaced.

That's this writers opinion; yours may be different, which is exactly where headset technology seem to be heading; flexibility and an ability to adapt to cach individual.

For sure, the perfect headset would be one that, after the four-hour flight, we've forgotten we were wearing.