What’s Up With Bluetooth? Explaining Motorcycle Headset Communication
Perhaps being a preteen amateur radio operator had its effect on me because communications and the related hardware still interest me so many years later. To say that comm gear has made radical advances over the last 20 or more years would be an understatement worthy of a government official.
More to the point, communicating between riders on motorcycles, up until now, has been in its infancy. Bike-to-bike comm has languished mainly in the realm of highly motivated riders and the equipment available required a commitment of much cash and lots of setup time to gain satisfaction.
With the advent of Bluetooth headsets for helmets we got the first glimpses of the modern age. Unfortunately, most manufacturers build their mostly-proprietary equipment to communicate by intercom with others bearing the same brand hardware. Additionally, limitations in early versions of Bluetooth technology also limited how easy and well this all worked.
Motorcycle Bluetooth Communication Background
Now the game is changing for the better. Advanced Bluetooth specs allow a rider to pair his headset with a cellphone, music player, GPS, radar detector and intercom and all these services can co-exist nicely and offer the functionality riders want.
The last piece in this technology puzzle is bike-to-bike comm which, to me, is the most important. This function has been and continues to be engineered as a type of intercom which connects riders with identical hardware together in an ad-hoc network using the broadcast power of the Bluetooth radio signal. Early examples of this allowed 2-3 riders to talk together by pre-pairing the headsets before the ride and then they were limited to, at first, about 30-50 feet in range.
Newer examples have both increased the number of riders able to pair into the network and the effective range by stronger signals and better built-in antennas. Some brands have repeater technology that allows all units to “rebroadcast” signals up and down the string of riders thus extending the range to a mile or so.
These improvements over the years have been nice but limitations due to proprietary hardware have hindered advancement, not to mention the requirement of having to pair all units in advance, which excludes newcomers from dropping in on the conversation. Some progress on eliminating the need to pair in advance is being made by Cardo and Schuberth with the latter’s Click-to-Link feature allowing instant pairing and the former’s feature for pairing by bumping helmets together, but only with their respective hardware.
Like many forms of technology, manufacturers seem focused more on getting riders within a group to all buy their product for compatibility rather than focusing on an open specification allowing all brands to communicate with one another. As with other technologies, my feeling is that manufacturers will move toward establishing such a spec and I have heard these rumblings in the industry but, as of this date, I know of no progress. Think cell phone chargers and so much other technology in smartphones that started out proprietary and evolved into industry-wide standards. This type of evolution inures to all our benefit and my prediction is that, eventually, this will come to pass.
35-mile Open Communications Now
For many advocates the goal isn’t far different than how CB radios are used by truckers. Get the gear and use a common channel or frequency and you’re on the air to participate in conversations with your group.
CB is still a choice but operates through amplitude modulation (AM) just like an AM radio and is subject to much interference and static. Newer models of FRS, GMRS, business-band and amateur radios use frequency modulation (FM) and are just about noise free. Since bikers aren’t often listening for “road checks” like truckers, they don’t need to tune into CB channel 19 for all the reports. By choosing from many consumer 2-way radios, riders can select an inexpensive FRS (Family Radio Service) or GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) device that is FM and operates on the UHF band for quiet, static-free operation up to 35-miles although range varies widely depending upon the terrain.
In order to integrate 2-way radios into the system one must add Bluetooth to an existing radio. There are several manufacturers who make devices that plug into the radio and then pair with the headset.
One manufacturer has recently announced, for Fall of 2013, the release of a FRS/GMRS 2-way radio with Bluetooth technology already built in at an affordable price. This will be a first in a consumer radio and finally brings down the cost of creating this system. I am excited about this product.
With the last pieces of electronic art in place I know there is a bright future for helmet communications and all the related amenities. We at Ultimate Motorcycling are fans of Bluetooth and want to help spread the word to the thousands of riders who, because of cost or complexity or just not understanding what is offered, are missing out on an important piece of kit that increases enjoyment and safety on every ride. Don’t be the guy that says he’s too old school to get on board.
Watch for upcoming reviews of the latest gear with in-depth descriptions of how the stuff actually works and whether to buy it based upon your own priorities.
Bluetooth Motorcycle Communication Reviews: