The dark age of the coronavirus is shaping up to be a golden age of drone innovation. We’re seeing a boon in delivery drones, for instance, as well as a new class of diagnostic drones. The latest comes from students at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University: A drone that can a hear a COVID-19 cough.
Getting a drone to hear anything is impressive, given the noise of the rotors. The students say they have not only overcome filtering out noise but have also refined the system to recognize the specific sound of a COVID-19 cough. “The properties of the sound of a COVID cough are different from the other types of coughs,” said Annesya Bannerjee, one of the students. “We might not be able to understand it, but the drone will pick up those intricate details.” Not only that, but the system can recognize coughs from multiple people in a crowd.
Rise of the pandemic drone
This system, they say, can be used as a first-level screening tool at places like quarantine centers. It could also monitor crowds for prevalence of the disease. It brings to mind the more extensive “pandemic drone” developed by Canadian drone maker Draganfly. That device, however, relies mainly on video as well as thermal imaging to detect vital signs such as temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate.
Draganfly recently encountered public backlash and had to abruptly end a trial of its drone in the town of Westport, Connecticut. The public was most alarmed about the collection of video. Perhaps an audio-only drone would create less concern.
The Jadavpur students didn’t set out to create a pandemic drone. Their original project was for a search-and-rescue drone. The idea was to train it to recognize human voices so the drone could locate survivors in a disaster area. The project was funded with a $15,000 grant from the US NGO WeRobotics. After taking second place in an international competition in February, the students turned to the coronavirus and retrained their drone to pick up on the sound of coughing. The students are now working with the West Bengal Government’s Health Department to further refine the design.