As more schools across the nation reopen for in-person learning, there’s sure to be a heightened focus on keeping schoolchildren protected from the spread on COVID-19.
But a new face mask equipped with smart-sensor tracking software is poised to make it easier for parents to monitor their child’s safety.
The Smart Face Mask is touted as the world’s first-generation technology mask. It can monitor air quality, aid in contact tracing and generate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting. And the cutting-edge face covering is the creation of Modern Radio, an Atlanta-based tech firm co-founded by a Black man.
“We make, build, design and we control the entire process,” said Laron Walker, Modern Radio’s chief technology officer. “So when you talk about the hardware and the software, everything it does are things that we created and produced, and we control the manufacturing process. We think it is a story, hopefully people believe that and help us get it to scale. Because we definitely are excited by it and just trying to make sure everybody realize that it’s not a fluke. This mask works, it’s demonstrable. We’re just trying to get it out there.”
Walker helped found Modern Radio in 2016. The smart solutions start-up specializes in Internet of Things, or IoT, a next-generation software.
The company has partnered with Hall of Fame football player Champ Bailey to ramp up production of its latest invention. Bailey and Modern Radio recently announced the launch of a Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise money to mass produce the Smart Masks for K-12 students as schools nationwide pivot from virtual learning and begin to reopen this year.
“We all know that this is not sustainable to keep these kids at home,” Bailey told Atlanta Black Star on Jan. 8. “So I love being a part of something different that can really make an impact. We know that this thing is needed. And it’ll give people a sense of security, knowing that they’re protecting everybody and they can monitor it in real time. So I just felt like, you know, with all the features that came along with it, it was a no brainer.”
Bailey, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019, spent 15 seasons in the National Football League, primarily with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. He recorded 53 career interceptions, and NFL.com ranks him the 12th greatest cornerback of all time.
Since retiring in 2014, Bailey has turned his focus to start-ups through his investment company, Team Bailey Holdings.
Bailey said he and Walker’s sons play sports together and their partnership sparked from a conversation about the IoT world in which Walker creates. The term was initially foreign to him, but Bailey said when he read up on it he realized he’s unwittingly used IoT products for years.
IoT is a broad concept that refers to the growing ecosystem of electronic devices that connect to the internet or to other devices. They are are capable of gathering data, sending it through the internet for analysis and receiving instructions based on that analysis. The umbrella term that encompasses everything from Fitbits and Amazon Echo devices to smart refrigerators, fitness wearables, factory machines, security systems, bicycles and fire alarms. There’s an estimated 20 billion such smart devices in use today.
After learning about the Smart Mask, Bailey immediately recognized it as transformational and agreed to join to push to bring the product to more schools. He called it a “win-win for decision makers” like parents, school administrators and PTAs.
“As a parent, there is nothing I won’t do to keep my kids safe when they are at school, participating in sports or visiting any location where I am not present,” Bailey said in a Jan. 3 press statement announcing the national campaign.
The Smart Mask uses a “plug-and-play” data tracking approach that can make contact tracing more efficient. Users who’ve been in contact with a COVID-positive patient will be able to retroactively determine if they were wearing their mask at the time of exposure.
The battery-charged smart sensor is capable of monitoring when the mask is worn properly or at all, and it issues alerts when masks are required or removed.
The mask can track air quality, body temperature, environmental conditions. It detects pollutants, irritants and other viral threats. And the information is securely stored in an encrypted data bank.
The Smart Mask is reusable, Bluetooth-equipped and enabled with a chipset that integrates with the mask’s companion app. The technology can quickly turn any classroom into a monitoring station.
All of that means parents can be watchdogs of their children’s body temperatures and health conditions while the kids are in class or anywhere that requires a face mask. Parents can keep tabs on whether the little ones are wearing their masks when required and can monitor the air quality surrounding them.
Walker believes the Smart Mask can help accelerate a return to normalcy.
“Ultimately, it’s a compliance solution,” he said. “So if you are an organization who requires that people are wearing masks or doing things a certain way, this is one of the only ways that we’re aware of which you can deterministically know that it’s happening, and react when you know those things that are not happening appropriately.”
The mask’s development goes back to the onset of COVID-19. Walker said his team began working on the product almost a year ago when the global pandemic first reached American soil in January 2020.
The prototype won first prize at the ATP Cyber HealthTech 2020 Global Innovation Challenge in August. Shortly afterward, Bailey teamed up to help market the product for corporate sponsorship.
Modern Radio already produces the mask on a relatively small scale, and it’s available on the company’s website. They’re doing pilot programs in Arkansas and Louisiana school districts.
“The more things that we can create, the cheaper it becomes and the more we can push it out,” Walker explained. “Our challenge and our focus today is getting it to scale so people can get it into their hands. So most of our focus over the past, I would say five or six months, has been how do we get enough of these things produced and get them out to the masses to make a difference.”
One of the main goals now is to convince larger companies to buy in and sponsor schools. Modern Radio already has an adopt-a-school program where companies donate enough money to buy masks for children in underfunded schools. The aim of the Indiegogo campaign is to raise $50,000, enough to adopt a handful of schools at once.
“Even though we’re doing things outside of the Indiegogo, that was a way to kind of bring attention to the conversation and to spark dialogue,” Walker said. “With that campaign, our goal is to get four or five schools adopted through the platform. And we think that that’ll become the catalyst for a national conversation to get the word out.”
Afterward, the focus will shift to mass producing the mask for market. Bailey noted that the team’s been in discussions with some major companies. He acknowledged one of the biggest challenges they face is explaining the technology to potential investors on the front end so they understand how the product works.
“I think the tech obviously speaks for itself, but there’s a lot of education that comes behind it,” Bailey said.
He also noted the difficulties of convincing backers to buy into a Black-owned business but indicated he believes in the Modern Radio’s creation and touted the mask’s ability to be a safeguard for children.
“Being Black-owned business, it definitely has its benefits,” Bailey said. “But there’s also challenges to that as we go. Because you tend to have to prove yourself two and three times over. At the same time, man, we wear it with pride. And I believe in these guys. I believe Modern Radio has a great future in this space. But we really want people to buy into the mask because we’ve got to get these kids back in the classroom. And if a company wants to sponsor, that’s probably the best way to help us right now so we can scale the production and make sure all these kids are protected.”