After the C-Prize – Dotterel Technologies

Two years on from being named as runners-up in #CPrize2015, we chat to Auckland-based Dotterel Technologies about the business of drones.

Back in 2015, Callaghan Innovation launched the inaugural C-Prize. It invited New Zealand students, innovators and entrepreneurs to develop UAV technology for the screen industry. The competition set three specific challenges: reducing UAV noise, increasing stability in high winds, and improving automated object tracking.

The overall winners were Vortec, and they focused on the second challenge – stability. The company, founded by four engineering students, caught the attention of the judges thanks to their directional propellers. The clever design allowed drones to move sideways without needing to rotate the body – this makes drones faster, more responsive and stable, even when weighed down with payload, or flying in poor weather conditions.

For runners-up Dotterel Technologies, it was the droning of drones that they wanted to tackle.

“Drones are incredibly loud, and that's an issue for pretty much every commercial and recreational application there is,” explained Chief Operating Officer, Shaun Edlin. “In security and defence, drones require an element of stealth, and in agriculture, the noise can cause animals to bolt.” Since founding the company during C-Prize 2015, Dotterel’s focus has been in another area ruled by sound – cinematography.

There has historically been a serious lack of commercially-available low-noise propeller systems, which makes recording audio directly from drones almost impossible. In addition, having a drone hovering over a filmset is a nightmare for sound engineers. In order to remove the hum, they have to post-process the audio signal collected by every microphone on the set. This is an extensive (and expensive) problem for the film industry, and as demand for dramatic aerial footage has grown, so too has the question of noise-reduction in drones.

Dotterel took a three-pronged approach to the challenge, as described by their Mechatronics Lead, Seamus Rowe. “Our nanofiber-based acoustic shroud absorbs sound in the speech frequency range, while focusing other frequencies upwards, away from the ground, and edge modifications on our propellers make them quieter. In terms of active tech, we use an array of microphones, filters, and algorithms to record ‘clean’ audio from the ground, allowing our system to listen in real-time.”

But Seamus admits that when they applied for the C-Prize, their idea was far from coherent – “We had a base design, an initial business plan, and a really good team. I think that's what led us to becoming finalists, to be honest – the fact that we were working together to reach a clearly-defined, achievable goal. Developing a working prototype of our technology only came at the finalist stage.”

A big boost to their burgeoning business came with the C-Prize trip to the 2016 National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas. “Going there and getting in front of the major players in the film industry was amazing,” said Shaun. “It made us realise that noise-reduction was something the market needed. The demand and interest in what we were doing were substantial.” And at the close of that event, Dotterel were deemed Most Innovative Product by industry publication Newsshooter.com.

In the months that followed, the team went about securing capital, and again, Callaghan Innovation assisted in that through grants and finding investors, partly through The Snowball Effect. Alongside this, Dotterel were busy developing and improving their technology. In early 2017, Dotterel joined 13 other Kiwi companies in a New Zealand delegation to CES, the world-famous consumer electronics show also held in Las Vegas. Supported by Callaghan Innovation and Air New Zealand, they showcased their latest drones to a huge audience, as well as pitching to Techstars, a global network for technology entrepreneurs.

From the hundreds of companies who took to the stage, just ten were invited to take part in the Techstars Adelaide Accelerator…. And Dotterel have just been announced as one of them. There, as part of a three-month-long residency, they will work alongside companies from the defence sector, such as Boeing, Thales, and Saab. “It's like extreme C-Prize,” joked Seamus, “and at the end of it, we’ll be pitching to a series of investors.” But for the team, Techstars offers more than simply a capital-raising opportunity, “These are exactly the groups that we want to be designing solutions for,” said Shaun. “So, we will be able to tailor our technology and our business models for those key customers. We really couldn't ask for a better stepping stone.”

But their ambitions don’t stop there. Ultimately, Dotterel believe that their technology will become a standard feature on all drones. “Legislation is changing all over the world and there are multiple signs that noise-mitigation will become mandated,” said Seamus.

Shaun continued, “We’re the only company in the world solely focused on drone noise, so with a licensing model, we have the ability to become 'the Dolby of drones'”. To reach that goal, Dotterel have been busy securing commercial contracts with drone manufacturers and audio companies, and interest in their technology continues to grow.

“We’re so proud of the successes that Dotterel have had to date,” said Chris Hartshorn, Callaghan Innovation’s Chief Technology Officer. “We will continue to support them in any way that we can, and are excited about the future that awaits them.”