Struggling to find a mobile signal can be frustrating for those in remote locations, but no doubt scary if you find yourself in a perilous position surrounded by ocean. James Thomas would certainly say so.
The automotive and defence engineer was taking part in the 2019 Rolex Fastnet sailing race from Cowes on the Isle of Wight to southern Ireland and back in a small boat with one other member of crew. Miles out to sea off Land’s End the vessel’s battery failed, knocking out their communication and navigation systems including auto-pilot function. Not only that, but one of the sails fell overboard in high winds.
With no mobile signal, it was impossible to call for help. James managed to haul the sail out of the sea and they got going again, but with only a paper map to guide the way. “There was definitely a point when I stood there and thought if I go overboard, I’m not going to make it back,” he remembers. “And that is where my idea came from.”
During the pandemic lockdown James developed the concept of a high speed 5G communications network for the sea, that makes use of a series of platforms kept afloat by buoys. Mobile phones would connect to the network, allowing users to make calls as well as transmit and receive data.
But the idea was not just to help sailors in distress: it also promises reliable communications for engineers installing and maintaining marine infrastructure such as wind turbines generating electricity.
James founded JET Connectivity (the name uses his initials) to design the floating platforms and associated cloud-based software. Within nine months the company secured £30,000 of support to develop data distribution technology from a Transport Research & Innovation Grants programme focused on maritime decarbonisation, funded by the Department for Transport and delivered by Connected Places Catapult.
JET Connectivity has since gone on to raise significant funding from grants and customer sales. James recruited a team with complementary skills and the company now has a staff of 15 refining the technology and taking it to market.