Student’s invention outsmarts smartphones while at sea

Being in trouble at sea without a phone signal might no longer be an issue thanks to an Irish-designed case that allows a phone to become a VHF radio.

Seán Toomey: Hopes a  firm will come on board to produce Casemate

Seán Toomey came up with the idea for his waterproof VHF Casemate last year as a thesis project for his product design degree at Dublin Institute of Technology. He is now hoping a partner firm will be found to put it into production.

“More people are now relying on phones in case they have an emergency, but I spoke to a few people at the RNLI in Dún Laoghaire. They said it was a problem in some cases they responded to, where people had tried unsuccessfully to raise the alarm using mobile phones,” the 23-year-old Dubliner said.

One of the biggest problems is the risk of sailors having no phone signal if they face distress. But even making a call by phone does not give the same location information a VHF radio can provide to coastguard or lifeboat crews.

Another advantage of VHF radio is that nearby vessels should quickly pick up the distress signal.

While there are many waterproof phone cases on the market, Seán’s design also includes the electronics that enable VHF radio communication, which are not found in even the smartest of smartphones. By sliding the phone into the case and connecting it to an in-built connector — which also doubles as a charger — the user has a VHF radio that can be activated very simply through a phone app.

The buoyant prototype was successfully trialled last year, but Seán is still finalising design and software in his spare time, having started work this year for Dyson near Bristol in England.

The firm is recruiting in Irish colleges for bright young minds with inventive ideas in a drive to recruit 400 engineers for its expanding technology range.

For DIT Hothouse, the college’s innovation and technology transfer centre, the aim is to find a commercial partner to take on Seán’s patent-pending technology and sell it to consumers. Ideally, it should retail for less than €100, with VHF handheld radios currently available to buy for between €50 and €200.

“I would love to think if it was taken up and made available, that it could get into as many hands as possible,” Seán said.

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