The Acoustic Observatory – Monitoring the unheard


We have reported before on field recordings and the growing popularity of using these recordings in music productions. Now we may see an ever growing library of natural sounds as Australia pulls off an ambitious project. The A2O will transform environmental science and assessment in Australia, and foster cross-disciplinary research between ecologists, biologists and computer scientists.

The observatory is collecting one of the largest terrestrial sound datasets in the world, recording audible species across multiple habitats, and providing high resolution spatial and temporal data.

Acoustic sensors are built to specification by Frontier Labs in Brisbane, Australia. Each acoustic sensor stores data on high-capacity SD cards, which are manually collected and replaced at least once a year. Those sensors themselves will be familiar to electronic composers and field recordists. They use standard technology, but operate entirely on solar power – a necessity for remote locations. The recordings are continuous, and spread through the vast country, across some one hundred sites and 400 sensors covering “desert, grassland, shrublands and temperate, subtropical and tropical forests.”

Acoustic sensors are powered by solar panels, with all equipment easily mounted on a standard 1.8 m star picket. This design ensures each acoustic sensor and additional hardware is simple to install and has minimal space requirements.

Audio recording is less intrusive and far more comprehensive (in time and space) than conventional methods. And there are real, practical possibilities, as ABC News in Australia reports from Queensland:

[Biology Professor Lin Schwarzkopf, James Cook University] had also mapped the noise of the aggressive Indian myna birds and the rare black-throated finch, which environmentalists warned was a species under threat from the Adani coal mine in central Queensland.

“It’s useful because we can then look at things like species decline so we can understand when they are disappearing, like the black-throated finch. Over time we can listen for their calls and see if they are still there,” she said.

Acoustic observatory will record ‘galaxy of sounds’ to help scientists monitor Australian wildlife? [ABC News]

The A2O is a big data project

Not unlike astronomical observatories, the A2O collects large volumes of high-resolution data over time using a distributed sensor network.

These data are stored on the cloud and made available to researchers, citizen scientists, and the general public.

Speaking of astronomy and sound recordings don’t forget to check out NASA’s Soundcloud page for more juicy sounds such as the latest ones posted featuring quakes on Mars:

A recording of a magnitude 3.7 marsquake from InSight’s seismometer, called SEIS. This quake was recorded on May 22, 2019 (the 173rd Martian day, or sol, of the mission). Far below the human range of hearing, this sonification from SEIS had to be sped up and slightly processed to be audible through headphones.

A recording of a magnitude 3.3 marsquake from InSight’s seismometer, called SEIS. This quake was recorded on July 25, 2019 (Sol 235). Far below the human range of hearing, this sonification from SEIS had to be sped up and slightly processed to be audible through headphones.