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Aliens and Future Tech: Why the Military is Developing Comms Straight out of Science Fiction

Since the ancient beginnings of warfare, militaries have desired better ways to communicate on the battlefield. Needless to say, it’s difficult to shout orders over the intense sounds of gunfire, so the desire for better battlefield communication has evolved to include highly sophisticated technology.

We might even feel like we get a small taste of this communication technology as we sit down to play Call of Duty and put on a headset. And we even see futuristic versions on the tabletop roleplaying games we play.

In Paizo’s Starfinder tabletop roleplaying game, science is wonderfully combined with magic in a very peanut-butter-and-chocolate kind of way. Right alongside powerful spells you’ve got amazing tech.

But while Starfinder takes place in a distant future, not all of its technology is far-fetched. Even as some of it isn’t actually realized at the moment, much of it has been inspired by modern technology.

Take your standard communication (comm) units, for example. Their hands-free functionality is invaluable in the soundless vacuum of space or the chaotic noise of the battlefield. Would it surprise you to discover that our very real military is investing millions of dollars into communication technology for soldiers that resembles some of what we’re equipping our very fictional Vesk Soldiers with?

Comms: The Need For Improvement

The US military is throwing lots of dollars at “futuristic” communication alternatives and ear protection for two reasons:

1. Passive ear protection inhibits situational awareness.

Your typical passive ear protection comes in the form of those little squishy foam earplugs we’ve all used at the gun range (or lying next to a snoring spouse). They’re proving…inefficient. As proof: The Army is shilling out over 1 billion dollars to veterans suffering from tinnitus or hearing loss.

Part of the problem is due to soldiers opting to leave the earplugs out because they reduce all incoming noise. That’s no wonder considering that the Department of Defense’s Hearing Center of Excellence report that 50%-60% of our situational awareness comes from hearing.

It is easy to shove those suckers into your ears when you’re standing in your lane at the range, but leaving them in while in a hot zone is another matter. So too is trying to scramble and insert them when fighting erupts. Ain’t no soldier got time for that!

2. Passive ear protection limits communication.

Let’s assume our soldier does leave the passive ear protection in. Under the “all incoming noise” I mentioned above falls battlefield communication. So while you’re suppressing the sounds of ballistics…you’re also suppressing the sound of commands and warning.

The Future of Military Communication

There are two systems in various stages of development that are looking to solve yesterday’s problems with tomorrow’s technologies.

TCAPS: Tactical Communication and Protective System

One of the leading innovations for military comms is the TCAPS: An in-ear audio system that analyzes environmental noises and adjusts them to protect both the ear and the person to whom it belongs!

Author Mary Roach had the chance to give TCAPS a field test while researching for her book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. She describes the TCAPS’s operation:

“Incoming noises are analyzed; the quiet ones are amplified and the loud ones reproduced more quietly.”

page 60

So the physical ear is protected as incoming noises are capped off at a safe maximum. Soldiers can also turn the volume up to perceive quieter sounds when desired or even enhance their situational awareness when necessary! And the noise cap remains in place regardless of the volume utilized, so if an IED went off nearby while they were trying to listen for silent footsteps, they’d still be protected.

You can watch a cool video explaining the science of TCAPS here:

Sonitus’s Molar Mic and Bone Conducting Speakers

The Sonitus system incorporates a waterproof mic that affixes securely (but not permanently!) to your molars with a speaker system that uses the bones of the jaw and skull to send incoming communications straight to the bones of the inner ear.

This system offers a bunch of pros:

  • It keeps the ears open for situational awareness, allows for passive protection without inhibiting communications, or even allows for the TCAPS!
  • The mic’s placement in the mouth means breathing apparatuses can be used without affecting communications. This includes gas masks and underwater gear!
  • The molar placement also uses the body itself as an insulator against loud external noises.

Military Comms: Eat Your Heart Out, Starfinder

The Sonitus system would work even in the vacuum of space since it doesn’t use air to transmit the sound, and the TCAPS system would prove invaluable with the sounds of frag grenades and artillery lasers filling the air (while providing at least a +2 to Perception versus Stealth, I’d argue!). The only thing missing is the planetary range of the Starfinder comms, and even that might not be outside the realm of reality and is certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

Sometimes the fiction part of our science fiction isn’t so far out after all.

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