It’s a problem as old as the protective earplug itself – if you block out the loud, harmful noises, you also block out the quieter sounds, such as peoples’ voices... that is, unless you’ve got a QUIETPRO+ Intelligent Hearing System stuck in your ears. The setup consists of a pair of fairly regular-looking in-ear plugs, wired iPod-style to a small electronic control unit. When the system detects a dangerously-loud noise, it automatically sends noise-canceling sound waves to the headset. When things are quiet, it amplifies sounds like human voices, so the user is actually able to hear better than they would without it.

QUIETPRO+ was designed for and is in use by several nations’ armed forces, including the U.S. Army. Now, the makers of the device have announced that they are starting work on the next generation of hearing protection for offshore oil rig workers.

Besides blocking and transmitting sound, each earplug also contains two microphones, one that sits inside the ear canal and one located externally. The internal mikes pick up and wirelessly transmit the user’s voice, while the external ones detect sounds in the surrounding environment. When there is little noise, the system allows the user to electronically hear their environment as it is, or to even turn up the gain and hear it better.

As the environment gets louder, the system will first lower the playback volume of the offending noise, then will proceed to introduce its own inverse sound waves that cancel out the loud external ones. Because the user’s voice mikes are located inside their ear canal, which is already protected, they can transmit their voice without any accompanying external noises. Although a voice picked up inside someone’s ear might initially sound rather muffled, a digital signal processor sharpens it up before it hits the airwaves. This means that two users could easily have a conversation with one another, even if surrounded by loud engine noise or gunfire.

Nacre, the Norweigan company that makes QUIETPRO+, has now announced a partnership with energy company Statoil and with SINTEF, Scandinavia’s largest independent research organization. They will be adapting the system for use on offshore oil platforms, where not only is hearing loss a real danger, but spoken communications can be very difficult. Not being able to carry on conversations can lead to a lack of situational awareness, which can in turn lead to accidents.

“This project aligns well with Statoil’s commitment to preventing accidents and our goal of zero personal injuries on the job,” said Eli Aamot, Vice President for the research program at Statoil. “This is a very important step towards gaining full control of noise exposure for our workers on offshore platforms, and providing them with advanced hearing protection and communication solutions that will help keep them safe.”

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