The days of the iconic image of plainclothes law enforcement, military, and intelligence personnel wearing a small speaker in one ear and talking discreetly into a microphone in the cuff of their shirt may be coming to an end. The U.S. military has handed a small tech company a contract worth approximately $10 million dollars for tiny combination microphone-and-speakers that clip onto the back of your teeth and use vibrations to transmit sounds right into your head.
Though it sounds like a gadget you might find in a spy thriller or a superhero movie, the product from California-headquartered Sonitus Technologies is very real and works using well-established science. Defense One was first to get the details about the latest developments of the system, which members of the Air National Guard have already taken to Afghanistan and used during the response to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey along the United States’ Gulf Coast.
“The ability to communicate by radio is crucial for our mission,” an unnamed pararescueman from the California Air National Guard’s 131st Rescue Squadron said in an official press release on Sept. 11, 2018. “It enables us to execute in extreme conditions and save lives. But despite having amazing technology, communication still commonly breaks down because of the extreme environments where we operate.”
The 131st is situated at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. This individual is also a “Warrior In Residence” at the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), which is overseeing the contract with Sontius. In 2015, the U.S. military opened this office, which is also in Mountain View, to facilitate more active engagement with private companies developing novel technologies with possible military applications.
Sonitus’ system, nicknamed the Molar Mic, helps address many issues units such as the 131st have with their existing communications gear. It completely eliminates the need for headsets or earbuds, head-mounted microphones, and the wires that link all of that together with a larger radio.
Instead, an operator with the Molar Mic simply clips that tiny system into the back of last upper molar on one side of their mouth and that’s it. You can speak as normal, even in a whisper, and the built-in microphone will pick it up.
When messages come in, the system translates them into vibrations on your teeth, which then reverberate inside your head and into your inner ear. Though the wonders of biology, your own body is able to process all this and turn it back into understandable sounds. The company actually derived the system from a hearing aid that it had developed using the same principle.
“Over the period of three weeks, your brain adapts and it enhances your ability to process the audio,” Sontius’ CEO Peter Hadrovic told Defense One. But “out of the gate, you can understand it.”
The Molar Mic is similar in some conceptual respects to throat microphones, which use the vibration of your throat rather than your actual spoken voice. This technology dates back to before World War II and remains in common use today, but only works for outgoing transmissions, not incoming ones.
By sticking the microphone-and-speaker inside the mouth, Sonitus’ system also has the ability to pick up someone talking even with a cacophony of sounds around them, such as the spinning blades of a helicopter or the rushing air as someone parachutes out of an airplane, and also effectively cancels out much of that same background noise.
The Molar Mic still requires a normal radio to work and connects directly to a low-profile receiver the user wears around their via a wireless Near-Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI) link, similar to how Bluetooth devices link up with your smartphone. NFMI allows for encryption and can work underwater.
A second wireless or wired connection then transmits the information to and from the radio or radios, which work as they would if they were connected to any other combination of microphone and speaker. There are also no external components on the head that can get damaged or knocked off.
What this then means is that an individual can rapidly change headgear – imagine as U.S. Navy SEAL switching from a diving mask to a combat helmet or soft hat after swimming ashore on a covert mission – without any loss communications connectivity. There is also no need for head-mounted items at all, or to speak into discreet directly into a microphone under your clothes. A person passing by an individual wearing the Molar Mic on a covert or clandestine mission might just assume that they were talking quietly to themselves.
With that latter scenario in mind, it’s not surprising that Sonitus received some of its earliest funding from In-Q-Tel, a Central Intelligence Agency-funded non-profit venture capital firm that seeks out new technologies for the U.S. Intelligence Community. Since 1999, it has invested in dozens of companies, most notably Keyhole, Inc ., which became Google Earth in 2006.
In-Q-Tel was the organization that helped introduce Sonitus to the Pentagon and the DIU, then known as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), in 2016, which in turn procured a small number of the Molar Mics for the 131st. The squadron then took them to Afghanistan, where they did not employ them on any operational missions, but did experiment with them during training exercises, according to Defense One.
However, that experience informed the unit’s decision to bring them to the Gulf Coast in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey, where pararescumen did use the systems. It proved to be especially beneficial in that environment given the need to go above and below water at certain points and to work with the constant drone of helicopters and other machine noise in the background, Sonitus’ Hadrovic explained to Defense One.
“This guy is standing in neck-deep water, trying to hoist a civilian up into a helicopter above,” Hadrovic said. “He says, ‘There is no way I would be able to communicate with the crew chief and the pilot if I was not wearing your product.’”
There may still be limitations, though. The most obvious one is that each Molar Mic is fitted to an individual user. Any spares would have to be custom made, too, and wouldn’t be interchangeable among other personnel within an organization.
It’s not clear how much a person’s teeth might have to move over time before it renders the device uncomfortable to wear or otherwise unusable. Loss of the relevant molars for any reason might cause problems, as well. Poor dental hygiene has already been a surprisingly significant factor in U.S. military readiness problems in the past.
At the same time, Sontius says it is continuing to improve the technology and potentially expand its capabilities to be able to pick up and transmit a host of other biometric data. For the U.S. military, this might allow commanders to monitor the vital signs of troops in the field for signs of stress and exhaustion remotely or try to immediately assess a wound while rescue personnel are on route.
The Molar Mics do appear to be particularly valuable in various circumstances, such as covert operations and disaster relief scenarios, regardless of any limitations. We don't know for sure, but it seems very likely that the CIA, which has been funding the project for years, is already using them for clandestine work, especially given that Sonitus had demonstrated a working example of its original hearing aid design nearly a decade ago.
With hurricanes and other extreme weather bearing down on the southeastern United States, Hawaii, and Guam, it is possible that the 131st might make another more public deployment again to help in recovery efforts with the mouth-mounted communications gear.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org