Bluetooth comes to walkie-talkies
Klein Electronics this month will introduce a wireless headset dubbed Blu-Comm that is designed for use with two-way radios and operates on Bluetooth technology. This is the first use of Bluetooth — a popular cellular technology that enables hands-free handset use, among other applications — in the two-way radio market, said Richard Klein, president of Klein Electronics.
The headset features a small form factor that mirrors that of Bluetooth earpieces found in the consumer cellular marketplace and is far less bulky than other wireless headsets designed for walkie-talkies that are currently on the market, according to Klein. He added that the $139 retail cost of Blu-Comm headsets also is far less than competitive products costing in the neighborhood of $500.
Initially, Blu-Comm headsets will be available for use with Motorola and Kenwood handsets, with versions compatible with other vendor radios to follow, Klein said. He added that the unobtrusive form factor makes the product ideal for the casino- and retail-security sectors, which are the initial target markets for the headset. “Put one on and you look just like the man on the street. There’s no ‘Secret Service’ cord dangling from your ear,” he said.
However, Klein stumbled upon another potential market when he pitched the Blu-Comm to Costco, the giant warehouse-style retailer, which sells Klein-supplied portables and uses them in its warehouse operations. Apparently, wired headsets are a hazard in a warehouse environment, because they can get snagged on boxes, shelves and all sorts of hidden dangers.
“When I was talking to the guy at Costco, I said, ‘You’re using our radios … would you like to buy some of these earpieces for them?’ And he said no, because they have a mandate against wired earpieces. When I mentioned that these were wireless, he said, ‘You’ve just sold a few thousand.’” A second generation of the product, scheduled to be ready by the end of the first quarter this year, will be ruggedized and targeted to the military and public safety sectors, Klein said, adding that the military accounts for about 25% of his company’s business.
But ruggedizing them will be only part of the challenge, according to Randy Bailey, president and CEO of FreeLinc, which manufactures wireless headsets and speaker microphones that use near-field magnetic induction technology. Bailey said that Bluetooth is prone to security, interference, reliability and power issues.
“No one in the world … has introduced Bluetooth for mission-critical communications for several reasons,” Bailey said. “You’re putting an RF device onto an RF device and trying to make them cohabitate. That’s been proven to be fairly difficult at this point.”
Bailey said he believes that engineers eventually will solve these problems. In the meantime, “some big players in public safety have tried to do it, and no one has succeeded. I mean, there’s nothing out there today, and it’s not like Bluetooth is new,” he said.
Even if Klein succeeds in solving these engineering dilemmas, he probably will encounter other challenges in certain public safety sectors, according to Chris Baker, a firefighter and paramedic in Roseville, Calif., near Sacramento. Baker, who also served for roughly a decade as a part-time police officer, believes the earpiece Klein has developed would be ideal for bicycle patrols and could “be very convenient” for paramedics.
Firefighters, however, are another story. First, the product would need to be intrinsically safe, Baker said, because firefighters often find themselves in situations that involve hazardous materials. But getting certified as intrinsically safe is a complicated, time-consuming and costly process, Baker said.
Second, Klein will have to work with facemask vendors to ensure the Blu-Comm is integrated with that vital piece of safety equipment. “There are a lot of masks out there and a lot of manufacturers,” Baker said. “If you’re going to have a microphone that’s going to go into a face piece, you’re talking about something that’s going to have to be specialty-made for that piece of equipment. … We have a limited amount of time to put all of our gear on … so the device has to be ready to go, without a lot of manual configuration when they’re getting ready to go into a fire.”
Finally, Baker thinks the device’s boom microphone could be a problem in a firefighting environment if it doesn’t adequately filter noise. “We’re going to be right back to the same problem we have right now when we hold portable radio microphones up to our masks, which is that we pick up too much noise from the outside and not enough of the intended audio from inside the mask,” he said.
However, Baker added that Klein would have a great opportunity in front of him if he can figure all of this out.
“I can tell you that there is a whole field open to somebody out there who can make something for in-mask communications for firefighting,” Baker said.