Science

Researchers built drone with tiny microphones that can find screaming humans in a natural disaster 

Researchers in Germany have developed a drone that can locate humans by their screams.

Rather than a terrifying ‘Terminator’-like scenario, the autonomous devices would be used to assist first responders in rescuing hard-to-find survivors after a natural disaster.

The engineers recorded themselves making sounds someone in jeopardy might create, like screams, bangs and claps.

Then they trained the drone’s AI algorithm to recognize those noises, while filtering out the hum of its rotors and other background noise.

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A prototype drone has been programmed to recognize ‘impulsive’ noises humans in crisis might make—like screams, claps and kicks—and locate survivors of human disasters. It’s algorithms can also filter out background noise, like bird calls, the howl of the wind or the motor of the drone itself

Besides their military use, drones are increasingly being seen as a tool for search and rescue units. 

The University of Washington is working on a drone that uses smell to locate survivors, like a bloodhound, The Washington Post reported, while the Aerospace Corporation is developing drones that can identify dogs and share their location with rescue teams.

‘During disasters, such as earthquakes or shipwrecks, every minute counts to find survivors,’ researchers at Fraunhofer FKIE in Wachtberg, Germany, said in a statement.

Drones ‘can better reach and cover inaccessible and larger areas than rescuers on the ground or other types of vehicles… [and] could be equipped with state-of-the-art technology to provide quick situational awareness, and support rescue teams to locate victims during disasters.’ 

Macarena Varela, lead engineer for the ‘hearing’ drone, told The Post that an unmanned aerial vehicle ‘can cover a larger area in a shorter period of time than rescuers or trained dogs on the ground.’

A researcher mimics the sound of a person in distress to draw the drone's attention. Drones can cover larger areas than rescuers, dogs or other vehicles, researchers say

A researcher mimics the sound of a person in distress to draw the drone’s attention. Drones can cover larger areas than rescuers, dogs or other vehicles, researchers say

The drone completed several successful open field tests, locating its target 'within a few seconds' of picking up a researchers' cries.

The drone completed several successful open field tests, locating its target ‘within a few seconds’ of picking up a researchers’ cries. 

‘If there’s a collapsed building, it can alert and assist rescuers. It can go places they can’t fly to or get to themselves,’ said Varela, who unveiled the prototype last week at the Acoustical Society of America’s annual conference, which was held virtually this year.

The engineers first developed a database of ‘impulsive’ noises humans in crisis might make—like shouts, claps and kicks— and trained the drone’s artificial intelligence algorithm to recognize them.

They also tried to establish sounds for the drone to filter out, like bird calls, the howl of the wind or the motor of the drone itself.

The drone is equipped with small, digital microphones – akin to the ones found in smartphones and hearing aids – to keep the vehicle lightweight. 

Varela’s team completed several successful open field tests, with the drone locating its target ‘within a few seconds’ of picking up a researchers’ cries.

The drone is equipped with small, digital microphones akin to the ones found in smartphones and hearing aids to keep the vehicle lightweight

 The drone is equipped with small, digital microphones akin to the ones found in smartphones and hearing aids to keep the vehicle lightweight

To better detect victims from a distance, the engineers plan to add a higher frequency microphone.

The drones’ AI will have to do better than humans, though, as research shows people have trouble differentiating between screams of fear and those of joy.

In a report published in March in the journal PeerJ,  psychologists at Emory University found volunteers were good at differentiating the causes of some kinds of screams—like anger, pain, or surprise—but were lousy at determining if one is a shout of joy or of terror.

That could be because the acoustical elements used to communicate fear are also present in ‘excited happy screams.’

‘The acoustic features that seem to communicate fear are also present in excited, happy screams,’ explained lead author Harold Gouzoules.

‘In fact, people pay good money to ride roller coasters, where their screams no doubt reflect a blend of those two emotions.’

The team asked 182 participants to label 30 screams from Hollywood movies as conveying one of six emotions. 

For the most part, the subjects were able to correctly identify shouts of anger, frustration, pain, surprise and fear.

But screams of happiness were often confused with peals of terror.

Screaming doesn’t just break social norms, the authors said, it ‘requires a lot of vocal force and causes the vocal folds to vibrate in a chaotic, inconsistent way.’


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