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Communications system integrates into improved helmet

Whether it’s a bomb blast or gunfire, noise suppression against the deafening sounds of combat is one of several advantages of the Modular Integrated Communications Helmet (MICH) communications component.

The MICH is part of the Special Operations Forces Personal Equipment Advanced Requirements (SPEAR) program, a U.S. Special Operations Command modernization program managed by the Special Operations Forces-Special Projects Team at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

Conceived as a single integrated helmet program, MICH development was separated into helmet, land communication and maritime communication subprograms because of specific user-group needs, said Richard Elder, MICH project officer. The helmet began fielding in 2001, followed by land communications systems in 2002. Maritime communications are scheduled for delivery starting in 2003.

foam pads
Foam pads provide a flexible suspension for the MICH. Headphones and a bone microphone fit neatly along the inside.

The helmet trims the edge off of the commonly used PASGT Kevlar helmet fielded since the early 1980s to reduce weight, increase situational awareness and better integrate with body armor. The MICH bumps up the ballistic protection and increases comfort by employing a seven-pad foam suspension system.

For paratroopers, the MICH four-point chinstrap keeps the helmet on and stable during jumps without a retention strap or shock pad necessary with the old helmet.

“We can take away the soldier’s attention from equipment concerns so he can focus on the mission,” Elder said.

Helmet covers are reversible for woodland or desert camouflage patterns, and the sizes have been reduced from five to two. Different suspension pads take up the slack for the array of individual sizes.

Elder said the helmet will eventually be issued to all troops, but the communication component for now will continue to be gear set aside for the Special Operations community.

The MICH communications suite is fully compatible with all 30 radio systems used by the Special Operations Forces and Marine Corps. This is accomplished by using modified commercial-off-the-shelf impedance matching technology with a version for land and maritime operations.

Before MICH, special operators could find themselves monitoring several radios with a specific handset for each one. It was stressful if they encountered difficulties.

“Our job was to funnel all of them into one product. Now, for the first time, a user is universal,” Elder said. “They can plug into everything they’re going to find—helicopter, fixed-wing aircraft and special boat units. He can monitor across the board.”

A choice of cords, tailored to the user, connects the adapter box to the radio system.

MICH communication components consist of high and low-noise headsets with a microphone and speaker system that can be attached inside the helmet or worn alone. A headset cord connects to an impedance matching box to convert the radio signal, and then a selection of cords, based on the user, connects the box adapter to one or more radios. They have dual-radio channel capability with a simple press-to-talk button located on either the cord or box. Although it’s a dual channel system, the user can plug into another radio with many more active channels. Headset speaker systems are configured to monitor separate radio systems.

“It’s a catalog of gear that each individual unit can tailor to their profile,” he said.

Low-noise headsets are worn on patrol or on reconnaissance and leave the hearing unprotected, allowing the user to monitor ambient environmental sounds from all directions.

high/low noise headsets
High or low-noise headsets can be worn alone or attached inside the helmet. An impedance matching box adapts to different radios.

High-noise headsets cover the ears completely and use unidirectional microphones on the front of each earphone to pick up and amplify ambient sounds out to 150 meters.

When sound levels exceed 85 decibels, which is the threshold of hearing damage, the microphones turn off automatically, and the headphones become hearing protection. They’re intended for direct action, close quarters combat or lookout points. Because radio chatter and static is contained in the earphones, special operators can move silently.

The land system uses a bone microphone that works by “translating” the vibrations in the skull into electronic voice signals. This technology eliminates the background sound when used in noisy or windy environments. Elder said the microphone functions when placed anywhere on the head, but some users find that it works better in certain locations.

“We’ve freed that real estate in front of his face. He doesn’t risk getting snagged on things in his way,” Elder said. “The more sleek he is, the faster he can move and the more lethal he becomes.”

The user also doesn’t need to worry about getting it wet. All of the systems are waterproof and submersible, but the maritime communications can handle pressure down to 66 feet. The other difference between the land and maritime is that the maritime system uses a boom instead of bone microphone.

The Special Operations community has used the system on actual missions, according to Elder, and they are pleased with the performance.

“Users we come across think it’s great. They’ve called us across theater to say thanks,” Elder said, adding why the program’s so important. “It’s life or death, especially in a joint community. If you can’t talk, you’re in trouble.” +

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