A New Zealand company has developed what it says is a “world first” technology that enables audio capture on drones by blocking out the sound of noisy propellers.
Dotterel Technologies chief executive Shaun Edlin said after working with customers on drone technology across various sectors it became apparent there was high demand for drones that could pick up audio.
Over the past four years the Parnell company had developed a system to block out the sound of drone propellers and other background noise to capture crisp aerial audio, something no other company had been able to achieve to date, he said.
“It’s the equivalent of having a flying lawnmower next to a mic,” Edlin said.
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The current generation of “noisy” drones were great for taking photos and video, but the noise of propellers meant they couldn’t capture sound, he said.
“Essentially today all drones are deaf. They carry amazing visual sensors and other sensors, but they have no audio capability.”
Hearing what people were saying added sense and understanding to a remote situation, he said.
Dotterel Technologies created a payload that has an array of small microphones combined with advanced processing technology which can be fitted to drones.
This allowed for advanced filtering and microphone “directivity” to be changed so that it could capture audio from either a very tight area, for two-way dialogue, or a very wide setting, which was more useful for detecting someone over a wide area.
High-speed on-board processing runs through an algorithm designed by Dotterel Technologies to filter the incoming audio and remove drone noise. It then transmits the audio to a ground station with little delay.
“There is no one else in the world doing this. It is a world first technology,” Edlin said.
The payload weighed just over 600 grams and was designed to be fitted to the most common drones used by emergency services, meaning they did not need to invest in new drones.
Dotterel Technologies has also developed propellers and propulsion systems which reduce noise, reflect noise up and away from people below, and absorb specific tonal frequencies.
Over the past six months Dotterel Technologies had been undertaking end user testing in North America, Australia and New Zealand recently demonstrated the technology during a multi-agency search and rescue exercise in Auckland’s Hunua Ranges.
“The audio system is two-way so that the rescuers can not only hear the missing people call for help but also ask questions about injuries, other people and their location and advise of rescue actions,” Edlin said.
Edlin and his team flew a drone to find a “lost” person and proved it could be an effective way of providing two-way communications in the bush.
“Drones are used frequently in public safety situations around the world, like search and rescue and for improving situational awareness.”
As well as search and rescue, the technology could work as a remote communication tool to help deescalate situations in long range negotiations, and could have useful applications in film and television, such as live remote interviews, he said.
The product was currently in its beta stage and not yet for sale. He would not say how much it would cost but emphasised that, at this stage, it was a high-end commercial product rather than for general consumers.
Dotterel Technologies was building relationships with drone manufacturers to integrate its technology into future generations of drones, he said.
Auckland search and rescue (SAR) leader Brandon McCarthy said the audio addition to drones would make them an even more valuable tool in the SAR kit.
Having audio capability would allow rescuers to quickly gather critical information from missing people, or to pick up their voices when it flew across locations, he said.
“This is important, as many missing people are found by rescuers listening for voice appeal in hard-to-reach locations and the ability to quickly extend our hearing range is of high value.”