June 29, 2012
I am incredibly frustrated. I’ve been training hard for over a year, preparing myself physically and mentally, so I can kayak the Grand Canyon. No blind person has ever done this before. And it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever attempted. But I’m being held back by technology or, more specifically, the lack thereof. Imagine sitting in a boat with your eyes closed while riding an avalanche. The chaotic power is immense and the loud roar drowns out everything else. The only thing keeping you from utter disaster, possibly even death, is precise verbal instruction from someone else…but you can’t hear him! Of course, we immediately thought of using radios. But this solution has proved far more problematic than we anticipated. Naturally, the radios, cables, microphones, and earpieces need to be completely waterproof. They also need to be completely hands-free when speaking because both hands are on the paddle when kayaking.
First we tried Motorola MotoTRBO XPR 6100 radios and immediately ran into problems. The first deal breaker was a 1.5 second delay between what my guide tells me and when I hear him—in the fast action of a rapid, that’s a lifetime! I need as near to instantaneous commands as possible. The second big issue with the TRBO radios is they don’t allow three people to share the system. When I’m kayaking, I need two guides because there’s a reasonable chance that one of them might flip and be unable to communicate. However, due to the voice-operated switch (VOX), my second guide's unit causes interference and interrupts crucial commands from the primary guide. To solve this we turned off the VOX for the second guide. But there isn't a quick way for my second guide to take over guiding. We gave up on the Motorola system and switched to SetCom VL6 radios with the PirateRadio RL40 headset. These are a step in the right direction but we are still plagued with critical problems. On the plus side, the Setcoms offer hands-free operation for my guides. Unfortunately, even though the SetComs are marketed as “marine radios,” they are not waterproof or even weather resistant. Water can enter the battery compartment, which is never a good thing for electronics. So we’ve resorted to using waterproof bags and trying to seal the hole for a cable. On top of that, two out of three microphones stopped transmitting. They are supposed to be waterproof but my life depends on these working 100% percent of the time. Even when they did transmit, they would suddenly start sending unintelligible gobbledygook. Possibly related to this, the headset cable doesn’t attach directly to the radio; there is an adaptor cable between them that adds another point of failure. Although these are full duplex radios that are supposed to allow all operators to talk simultaneously, the system completely collapses with three radios online. Echo and reverberation make understandable conversation impossible. We tried new connection cables and various configurations of radio channels to no effect. The issue seems to be the RL40 headset units; three radios work fine with non-waterproof headsets. Another issue is the poor quality of the speaker on the headset is very poor so, even under ideal conditions, the sound comes out hollow and garbled. The earbuds of the Motorola’s were better in this regard. So here I am, basically ready to undertake one of the greatest adventures of my life, and I can’t go due to inadequate technology. Perhaps you, or someone you know, can help make the “impossible” possible. This will be another "first," similar to climbing Everest blind. It will take about 18 days to kayak 226 miles. Several of the rapids are huge—Lava Falls drops 26 feet in just 100 yards—and are daunting for even expert kayakers with full vision. Whatever the result, it will be a pioneering adventure! Here’s my challenge, help me develop or find the system that meets all of our requirements. Beyond my own adventure, these radios could be used for numerous other applications including sailing, surfing, climbing, and tactical operations. Requirements: Full duplex radios for three-way communication Completely waterproof, sand-proof, mud-proof, drop-proof Completely reliable Hands-free VOX microphone with noise cancellation Less than 0.5 second delay on transmit Single earbud with superior sound quality Bluetooth for microphone and earbud if reliable Rechargeable batteries with 8-hour minimum capacity Compact enough to fit in a life jacket pocket Costs less than a new SUV