We’ve all seen how amazing drone footage can be. It provides visually immersive angles and new perspectives on landscapes from above. But until recently, the noise factor meant drone footage was effectively a silent movie — the audio was unusable.
Dotterel Technologies are leaders in UAV acoustics, and develop noise reduction and audio recording technology for UAVs, expanding the uses for drones across the board.
Dotterel’s original technology demonstrated noise reduction for drones using acoustic shrouds and improved safety overall. With their in-depth knowledge of UAV noise and acoustics, CEO and co-founder Shaun Edlin and his team then started exploring what else was possible on a UAV.
Dotterel has now developed an aerial microphone sensor that enables drone users to record audio and engage in two-way conversation with someone on the ground, with widespread applications in search and rescue, defence, and film and television.
I asked Shaun how Dotterel got started, and what triggered the insight that UAV noise reduction was needed.
“As a founding team, we were drone enthusiasts and we were well aware of the limits to how they were used, primarily in terms of noise impact,” says Shaun.
“Drone noise has been a growing problem for some time — drones have been banned in some places around the world due to noise and have a blanket ban in US National Parks. The use of drones has also been limited because the noise means that while drones are carrying many incredible sensors, all drones are flying deaf to what is happening around them and have limited situational awareness.
“Dotterel was born out of the C-Prize competition run by Callaghan Innovation. Each competition asks entrants to fix a problem with an industry, and we were tasked to come up with a prototype that could overcome challenges for using UAVs in film and TV. Given we were aware of the UAV noise issue, our team started tackling the noise problem for drones.
“We partnered up with a University of Auckland team that were doing some great things with microphone technology, and cycled through testing different acoustic shroud design and material iterations for our original offering.
“While we didn’t win the C-Prize that year, the competition gave us the opportunity to attend the 2016 National Association of Broadcasters trade show in Las Vegas. We won the Most Innovative Product award at the show, but more importantly, we found ourselves being the only company offering noise reduction tech for drones. Our technology in its early form gained a lot of interest from end users and drone manufacturers — it gave us that early market feedback and confidence to pursue the commercial opportunity further.
“The drone user market in New Zealand is quite small, so in that respect we were born global from the start. It was necessary to go overseas to find our customer base. But all the know-how, technology and skills to execute were right here.”
I asked Shaun what he saw as factors to Dotterel’s success thus far.
“Importantly, we have a unique and passionate team — they possess a specific set of skills with a mix of both strong technical and commercial backgrounds, and we are all driven by solving hard problems. We’ve also been fortunate to partner with academic leaders in the drone acoustics space, and our access to their capability has allowed us to iterate and move faster.
“The team’s passion for solving hard problems has pushed us to keep innovating and pushing the boundaries on what was previously possible. And in the areas where we’ve been able to outsource development, it’s allowed us to keep learning from others and stay inspired.
“There is an element of fortunate timing of course. We were tackling a problem no one had solved, and there were bigger issues with drones when we got started. The fact that noise was down the list of UAV problems being worked on gave us a useful headstart.
“But we also had the niche skills required in the founding team. We’ve been good at identifying the value of directors and shareholders who could help introduce us to new customers and talent, and all of that combined has driven our growth and ability to pursue the commercial opportunity. I’ve seen some companies with a great idea but have just struggled to make it work because they haven’t built the right people and partners around the company.”
I asked Shaun what some of the challenges on their business journey have been.
Says Shaun, “We’re designing something new, which inherently involves a lot of problem solving and trying to find work-arounds to novel challenges. The rate of change within the UAV industry is so fast, we have to work hard to keep up — there are new models of drones being released all the time.
“Another challenge for us is that our market is predominantly offshore — that challenge is much more present today. Pre-COVID, we were spending one week of every month in Australia or the US: meeting new customers, forming new relationships. It’s been a real challenge to shift to digital marketing and continue to build our sales pipeline without having the ability to sit in the same room as potential customers.”
Along the way, Dotterel has led a series of successful capital raises. I asked Shaun what tips he had for someone looking to raise capital.
“Plan ahead on when you’ll be “investment ready” — draw a line in the sand for what stage you think you’ll be in a position to present a strong opportunity for a capital raise. Ask yourself ‘What do we think makes us investment ready?’ Work your way through that list and hit milestones until you’re ready.
“If you think you’ll need external capital at some stage, there’s no harm in building a pitch deck now and take investor feedback onboard to refine how you present the opportunity. Investors want to know where the company is heading, so know and provide meaningful projections.
“Finally, talk to a lot of people. You’ll get lots of no’s initially so don’t let that put you off. Provided you have the fundamentals right, there’s the right person or fund out there for you, you’ll just have to work bloody hard to find it.
“It’s a lot of work to do this well, but persevere. The fact is that fundraising is hard, so you need to stick at it.”
I asked Shaun what advice he’d give to someone looking to build a hardware startup.
“Get your idea out there, although make sure it’s protected,” says Shaun.
“From the start, we were very focused on making sure our IP was defensible and protectable, so especially when you’re looking to build something that hasn’t been done before, you need to validate that the commercial opportunity is real and that you’ll be able to keep your edge through defensible intellectual property.
“And importantly, focus on relationships. The relationships we built early on have been invaluable in taking us to the next level. Build a quality board and identify the right directors, invest in your customer relationships and work well with your investors. That opens doors for you and can give you access and credibility.”
I asked Shaun what’s next for Dotterel.
“We are very focused on commercialising our Aerial Audio payload for two-way communication at present, and on proving this product in our target segments. Our payload is built for a standard drone platform at the moment — we want to take it to other platforms and miniaturise the technology for smaller platforms.
“But in the meantime, we want to keep executing really well and allowing drone footage to be more than just silent movies.”
Originally published at https://www.knooknz.com on October 13, 2020.