2-8 May 2014 #705

Game of drones

Nepal has no laws for unmanned aerial vehicles but drones have enormous potential for conservation and tourism. And surveillance.
Sunir Pandey

EYE IN THE SKY: Two rhinos crossing a stream (zoomed, inset) in Chitwan National Park in an image captured by a camera on a drone.
Lt Col Chakra Shah of the Nandabaksh Battalion inside Chitwan National Park has been on daily jungle patrol guarding the endangered species inside Nepal’s most famous nature sanctuary. The work of Shah and his fellow soldiers has paid off: not a single tiger or rhino was poached in the park in the past 12 months.

But his work in Chitwan and the army’s support for conservation could get a huge boost if it could deploy drones to replace the drudgery of foot patrols. In fact, Shah has seen for himself how effective drones can be by serving as the eye in the sky.

From mid-2012 onwards, he has been part of an effort by the World Wildlife fund (WWF) and Chitwan National Park to try out unmanned aerial vehicles to help in conservation. The results were so encouraging that the National Park is keen to start using the devices as soon as possible.

“The long-term future of national park protection lies in the replacement of patrols with drones,” says Shah. Currently, the army can only assemble and fly the vehicles but can’t maintain or repair them if they crash.

Co-founded by Singaporean ecologist Lian Pin Koh and Dutch primate biologist Serge Wich, the organisation Conservation Drones (CD) has been training national park and army officials to fly drones and analyse data from them. From the feedback they received, CD has selected the particular drone that would be most suitable for Chitwan.

Based on a drone named after a potent Brazilian cocktail called Caipirinha, the ‘Caipy’ is capable of flying for 25 minutes sweeping a 20 sq km area at a speed of 13 km/h. Weighing only 630g fully loaded with fuel and a GoPro camera on board, the craft can be controlled with an Android app on a phone or tablet to launch the drone as well as log into check points across the surveillance area.

Koh says the possibilities for drone use in conservation are unlimited: 3D mapping of forests, monitoring deforestation rates, using heat-seeking cameras to detect poachers or illegal loggers, using WiFi to download images from camera traps, tracking radio-collared animals.

Conservationist Rupak Maharjan launches the drone for a test flight over Chitwan.
Conservation is not the only area where drones can provide help. A drone was used in the production of a spoof video of the Game of Thrones shot on location in Nepal through stunning aerial shots. Fixing a camera on a drone gives photographers and filmmakers a unique travelling vantage point while trekking or mountaineering.

Drones can also be useful in future disasters like floods and earthquakes, and help in search and rescue efforts. When seasonal roads get wiped away by landslides, drones could deliver small packets of high energy food, medicines, cell phones and other essentials to remote areas. Even journalists could use drones for investigative reports.

But Nepal’s laws don’t spell out the legality of drones, which is why the Chitwan initiative is stuck. Article 2(d) of Nepal’s Civil Aviation Act, 1996, defines aircraft as “any machine which can derive support in the atmosphere from reactions of the air, and this term also includes balloons, whether fixed or not fixed with land airships, helicopters, kites, gliders, hang gliders, microlight, balloons and any other flying machines.”

The most recent annual report of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal too doesn’t mention a single drone being licensed for private, public, or commercial use in the past year. Just like Nepalis are flying radio-controlled fixed-wing model planes without any permission, drones will also be here with or without government regulations.

Yet there is ample evidence on Youtube that people have already brought in drones and are using them. Don’t be surprised next time you hear a high-pitched whine above Patan Darbar Square.


Drone-shot of Chitwan National Park: