How bone conduction technology could revolutionise air cargo

One of the 10 startups to enter IAG’s Hangar 51 accelerator programme, Mobilus Labs has created a wearable hands and ear-free solution that takes the pain out of communicating in noisy, airside environments. We chat to the tech startup’s founder and CEO, Jordan McRae, about how a near-death experience inspired the idea, and how the tech can work for logistics. 

MCRAE-photo-3415x3415How does the technology work?

Mobilus is a hands-free, ear-free voice platform – and I use the word platform strategically because the tech involves both hardware and software – looking at how we can change a very fundamental experience, voice communication enabled by technology. The telephone is our classic reference point, but this 140-year-old experience [of talking on the phone] still has a lot of friction. We wanted to remove the friction by using bone conduction, so you don’t have to have anything in your ear, but sound is transmitted to your inner ear through vibrations on the head, which prevents you from having to put anything in your ear, it can be at the back of the head, or behind your ear, for instance. It allows you to hear everything around you, and in addition, any audio that’s being transmitted to you digitally. If someone is talking to you over the platform, it’s almost as if the voice is coming from inside your head, because it just appears through the vibrations.

How does it work for the air cargo industry?

We’ve embedded our technology into a safety helmet or a bump cap, allowing us to replace handheld radios, and anyone wearing that helmet can communicate across their team over multiple networks, through 4G, a phone network, the local radio network, or wifi. For us, it’s about improved health and safety and productivity.

Mobilus Bump Cap v1

Is this tech new?

Some aspects that we’ve developed are quite new, but bone conduction is well known. We’re building on its use in improving hearing impairment, where the NHS has done a lot of research. Some people have damage to their middle ear, but their inner ear is perfectly fine. Doctors will typically use a cochlear implant, which is effectively the same technology as ours but requires drilling into the skull to plant the device onto your head. What we’re doing is a non-invasive equivalent of that. But what this means is that it’s been studied for the past 20 or 30 years and it’s been approved as medically and operationally safe, but it’s been applied specifically to hearing impairment, whereas we’re using it as a two-way communication system.

How did you come up with the idea to apply it in such a different way?

I had a near death experience while scuba diving in southern Africa, which was caused by poor communication. I had some faulty equipment and I was trying to sign to my co-diver, but he misunderstood because he responded by making it worse, adding more weight to my equipment. I had to do an emergency ascent and suffered short-term injuries to my lungs, but while I was recovering, I had a lot of time to think about what had happened and started thinking of a solution, which is how I came to the technology.

At which stage of development are you?

We’ve just started to roll out, we’ve just reached our seed round which is fuelling the growth of the team and product development. We have our initial contracts signed with two international construction companies, and if we are eventually engaged by IAG Cargo once the programme is over, we can implement the technology across all of the carrier’s hubs – Dublin, Madrid and London. In airline logistics, it would be ideally used in a warehouse environment or airside.

How’s the programme going so far?

It’s going really well – we’ve met with our IAG Cargo sponsors, figuring out where the pain points are and how the technology can apply to those. There’s an interesting scenario specific to logistics, where you might have a last minute change to flight planning – a rerouted aircraft for instance – and that information doesn’t trickle down to the staff loading the hold quickly enough. A lot of time is lost in loading and offloading because of these last minute changes, but if there was an efficient way to give the Ops team a quick update, this could save so much time and money. It can benefit warehousing as well, where people are trying to find different packages quickly, and fast, simple communication solutions like this are incredibly valuable, even extending to admin-based or driver staff who are delivering cargo around the airport.

Find out more about IAG’s Hangar 51 startup accelerator here