By: LTJG Rob McClenning
When I won the Admiral Sims Award for Intellectual Courage at Athena 2 with the idea of developing Environmental Acoustic Recognition System (EARS), I can confidently say I was the most surprised person there.
In my mind, EARS was at best a mediocre idea, at worst it was blatant stealing from the Army. While history is full great innovators with “Eureka!” moments, EARS was born out of frustration and fear. Being on the bridge of a billion dollar warship with fog so thick you cannot see the bow, and your best bet to avoid collision is a Deck Seaman who is vaguely familiar with sound signals.
It’s enough to make even the youngest Ensign start sprouting gray hairs.
The basic concept of EARS is to take Army counter sniper technology and place it on warships to detect sound signals in low visibility environments as well as detect engines of small craft that are too small to be picked up on radar and that may not be visible to the bridge watchstanders. The Navy’s current remedy to low visibility is to open the bridge wing doors and place Deck Seamen and Supply Department Sailors topside to relay the sounds they hear to the bridge. Basically it’s like driving blind down a highway, while your friend sticks their head out the window to listen for the cars.
Most of the research for my initial EARS pitch was based off of the Army’s Boomerang project. Boomerang is an array of 8 microphones placed on the back of a humvee. When the humvee takes incoming fire, the Boomerang system uses the differentiating pressure waves on each microphone and projects the direction and estimated range of the shooter. This is information is then displayed inside to the driver.
With some simple reprogramming of the sounds being detected, I believe Boomerang could easily be installed on ships as a boon to the bridge watchstanders. After my less than spectacular victory speech I was approached by several engineers from the University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies to discuss various ways to do a proof of concept and possible prototype. We were all very excited to get to work right away and really make a difference.
After two months of emailing back and forth, Dave Nobles and myself received the beginnings of EARS. USC had successfully completed proof of concept with two Xbox Kinects and a cell phone. The bad news was they did not have the funding to continue any further development. Undaunted with the set back I pressed on, surely there was someone willing to back an Athena winner?
I decided to email the makers of the Boomerang system directly. There was no better choice than the people who actually made the equipment that EARS was based on, plus if it worked, they could make a profit by selling it to the Navy. However, Raytheon did not respond to my first email, or my second, or even my third. At this point, a year had passed since EARS had won Athena 2. Despite my best efforts and some mild interest, it seemed as if EARS was dead.
Another year passed with no hope of EARS being developed. I had transferred from BENFOLD and was working at COMNAVSURFPAC as the NFAAS coordinator. One day out of the blue I received an email from Bill Hughes, who served as the Navigator on BENFOLD. Now working at the Pentagon, Bill said he saw a presentation that I might be interested in.
Opening the attachment, I read through brief from the Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), on a system called FireFly. FireFly is essentially the Army’s own version of Boomerang, but better. ARMDEC added a camera as well as made the whole platform much more mobile. I decided to reach out to the Army PAO listed and see if AMRDEC had any interest in converting their equipment to maritime use.
After a few weeks of no response, I finally received an email from Dr. Tim Edwards, who works as the Chief Scientist for the FireFly project. Not only were they interested, but they had been actively seeking ways to break into the maritime community. We quickly setup a phone conference to get a feel what were working with. I was stunned by the amount of enthusiasm that Dr. Edwards and his team brought to the table. Dr. Edwards was able to allocate additional funding towards developing FireFly specifically for shipboard use, and he even offered to send a FireFly to me. Being a LTJG with no ship I had to unfortunately decline.
We continued to bounce ideas back and forth and since then we have reached out to several scientists at SPAWAR. Now we are attempting to coordinate with the Chief Science Advisor at COMNAVSURFPAC to find a test platform for FireFly. Meanwhile Dr. Edwards and his team are continuing to test FireFly with various small boat engines, and so far the results are promising.
While some ideas will naturally gain greater interest, it’s important as an innovator to keep pressing forward. Even if you win, the hard work is just starting. As painful a lesson as it is, in the Navy we know getting a new piece of equipment takes time. Even though Athena is taking great strides to speed up the process, it still takes time, sometimes months, and sometimes years. But any change that is truly worth while is worth the effort.
So EARS isn’t dead, not by a long shot, it just changed its name.
LTJG Rob McClenning is the Prospective Training Officer onboard the guided missile destroyer USS GRIDLEY, homeported out of San Diego, California. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri.
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