Pilots need sharp eyes, but Raytheon is looking to their ears as well. The company has developed a new 3D Audio system for aircraft, that turns information into an audible three-dimensional picture. It helps pilots identify where threats are coming from, and keeps radio channels untangled.

If there’s a threat, we’re more likely to turn toward a shouted warning rather than the threat itself. To prevent a warning from becoming a distraction, Raytheon’s 3D Audio system makes the threat identify itself by turning the direction and nature of the incoming danger into an audible, stereophonic signal that seems to come from where the threat originates.

Currently, most warnings are either visual, such as from screens, head-up displays or ocular displays; or as monaural alarms that tell the pilot what the threat is, but not where. What the Raytheon 3D system does is give audible warnings a stereo dimension that makes the warning signal come from the same direction as the threat.

More important, the system can detect when the pilot turns his head, and it adjusts the sound’s direction accordingly. “You always hear them from where they actually are,” said J.D. Hill, a program engineer. “You don’t have to interpret anything. It’s all just about reaction and what you hear.”

Another feature of the 3D Audio system is that it helps pilots to distinguish between several radio channels at the same time. It works a bit like how we can carry on a conversation with several people at a party. Because the participants are standing in different places, it’s easy for the ears to figure out who is speaking. With a pilot listening in on a pair of headphones, that is lost because of the two-dimensional nature of the sound.

“Pilots for years have been listening to three or four radios, and when two people would talk at the same time, it would just come across garbled,” Todd Lovell, a Raytheon engineer and former V-22 Osprey pilot.“With the 3D Audio, we can put those radios in different spatial locations relative to your head.”

Unlike at a party, a pilot can configure the system to determine whose voice comes from where. For example, a co-pilot’s voice might come from the right, a passenger’s from behind and the air traffic controller from ahead.

The Raytheon 3D Audio system is part of a suite of situational awareness systems that includes an Advanced Distributed Aperture System that gives pilots a “glass ball” view around the aircraft, and the Aviation Warrior wearable computer that allows the suite to keep working if the pilot leaves the cockpit, so going aft to check the cargo section doesn’t leave the pilot blind.

The video below outlines Raytheon 3D Audio’s capabilities.

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