Zipline seeks patent for audio aircraft detection system that drones might use

drones audio detection

Zipline has made a name for itself blazing new trails in drone delivery, and has fully revolutionized the way medical supplies are transported across Africa in the process. Now the company is looking to shake up aerial navigation as well with an audio-based aircraft detection and avoidance system as a possible alternative to radar – and one drones might also use.

Creating radar-esque detection system using acoustic sensors

Earlier this summer, the US Patent Office published a filing by Zipline for a system described as “acoustic based detection and avoidance for aircraft.” The abstract in that July 22 notice for the patent application sounds not entirely alien to the ping-and-response functionality of radar and other technologies that aircraft have long used to detect and avoid once another. But this time, Zipline’s approach uses acoustical sensors to act as a vehicle’s ever-peeled situational ears.

“An audio signal received at audio sensors of an aircraft is analyzed to determine directional information for a source of the audio signal,” it says. “A location of the source of the audio signal is determined based on the directional information for the source of the audio signal.”

If it can become a fully functioning reality, the effort to create a small but effective detection app accessible to a far wider range of aircraft could become Zipline’s next aerial revolution – especially when extended to drones.

As things currently stand, passenger and commercial aircraft are responsible for making sure the airspace in front of them is clear of potential collision risks. Often that’s assured using either radar or other technologies providing spherical coverage in all directions. 

The cost and size of hardware used for that, however, makes those options impractical or impossible for smaller craft. But if Zipline can develop its system using shrunk-down, unencumbering, yet efficient audio sensors as an alternative to radar, that could provide an affordable, easily mountable, and transportable tech option to current detection systems. 

Audio sensors may provide drones detection and avoidance capacities now reserved for larger aircraft

That, in turn, could allow smaller aircraft, including drones, to be outfitted with capacities permitting them to see, and be seen by other airborne vehicles. Meaning, the rising concerns over passenger planes hitting drones – or uncrewed aerial vehicles striking one another in denser airspaces of the future, as craft and services proliferate –  could be greatly reduced. It just might give drones similar detection and avoidance capabilities that the Big Berthas of the skies deploy.

How does it work? According to the patent filing, Zipline’s describes the general idea as follows:

“A method comprising: receiving an audio signal at audio sensors of an aircraft; analyzing the received audio signal to determine directional information for a source of the audio signal; and determining a location of the source of the audio signal based on the directional information.”

The rest gets fairly wonky and party-of-the-first-part jargony, but Zipline’s filing generally describes a process using sensors, audio situational calculations, and machine learning to create an aircraft detection and avoidance system that listens for other craft in the surrounding area, then gets out of their way.

“One or more non-transitory computer readable media may be encoded with instructions which, when executed by one or more processors of an acoustic aircraft detection system, cause the aircraft detection system to analyze an audio signal received by the acoustic aircraft detection system to determine directional information for a source of the audio signal and generate an estimation for a location of the source of the audio signal based on the directional information,” it says in a one typical textual mouthful.

As for drones, Zipline describes the audio-based detection system working in this way:

“An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) includes a plurality of acoustic sensors connected to the UAV and an acoustic detection system comprising one or more processors. The acoustic aircraft detection system analyzes audio signal received by the plurality of acoustic sensors to generate an estimation in a three dimensional space of an intruding aircraft relative to the UAV.”

Watch this (air) space.

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