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Photos From Nepal: Drones and Image-Mapping for Next-Generation Disaster Response

The latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series, in which Kike profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on using drones, UAVs and remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography.

Arriving in Nepal for the third time makes me think about how unpredictable life can be. During my last expedition, I was documenting the beauty of traditional Nepali architecture in locations such as Durbar Square, capturing the richness of the traditional clothing and visually exploring the small, picturesque mountain town of Bandipur. My article “Asia: 10 lessons learned with the heart of a photographer” was a result of this trip.

Since then, a major earthquake shocked the city of Kathmandu, turning some of those iconic places I captured with my camera into rubble. My mind wonders about the current situation of the sites, while I type these lines late at night aboard the National Geographic Explorer.

 

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District of Panga on September 22, 2015. Photo © KIKE CALVO

 

After a long flight with a stopover in Abu Dhabi, I land in the capitol late at night. Once in the hotel, I bump into one of my team members at Pix4D, Krista Montgomery (public relations manager). Our teamwork, along with DJI’s, will support Patrick Meier and his efforts to create a drone lab at Kathmandu University. After a long chat with Krista about expectations and ideas, I see the some of the DJI team arrive. The film crew, along with the photography director Paul Moore, are all there. After the official introductions, I head to my room to catch some rest and write up some ideas in a notebook. The concept of mapping using drones has fascinated me since I became aware of it. For the last few months, I have been working on my new book So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones? A Photogrammetry Field Guide for Photographers, Researches and Conservationists.” In the process of writing it, I have gathered together knowledge of how the mapping is done, allowing me to envision a global understanding of the possibilities in this field. Being here on the ground is a perfect complement to these theoretical studies and self-assigned mapping projects.

“Pix4D came to Nepal because we see this professional mapping workflow as making mapping very achievable and want to share that,” said Pix4D co-founder Olivier Kung. “These students can use this new technology…in disaster response, surveying, construction, and engineering…yes, advocating its use in Nepal, but also helping the technology itself advance.”

Photo © KIKE CALVO
Photo © KIKE CALVO

 

Tuesday, September 22 – Kathmandu

Early in the morning, we all gather at breakfast to exchange ideas about our goals in this expedition. The film crew will take off on their own to capture some B-roll of the city in its current status. The Pix4D team will join the DJI team to test the drones, and ultimately, confirm that the new mapping application for the Phantom 3 (the Capture App), which is still in beta status, is functioning correctly. Krista and I, along with the video team, head out to capture life in a quiet neighborhood in Kathmandu.

Excitement about the conference and training next day is growing each moment. Program coordinator and assistant professor at Kathmandu University, Subash Ghimire, says he expects the students to learn everything they need to know to take images and use them for image processing, as well as be able to analyze both satellite and UAV imagery.

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District of Panga on September 22, 2015. Photo © KIKE CALVO

Ghimire teaches GIS and land administration, and has been using drone imagery for field work in collaboration with ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development), estimating biomass and carbon stock from the forest.

“Most of my students will go to work in government, because our program is in collaboration with the government and they have given many of the students scholarships,” says Ghimire. “Other students will go on to work with ICIMOD, WWF, even NASA, and some to form their own consultancy offices and companies.”

He is convinced the UAV and image workflow will work, and that’s why he wants his students, faculty, and other departments to be involved in this training.

 

Durbar Square in July 2013. Bhaktapur (Nepal). Photo © KIKE CALVO
Durbar Square in July 2013. Bhaktapur (Nepal). Photo © KIKE CALVO

 

Wednesday, September 23 – Kathmandu University

A day full of presentations ahead of us, we start with an overview of UAV Projects by Uma Shankar Panday at Kathmandu University.

This first day includes a series of presentations on humanitarian UAV applications, missions, best practices, guidelines, technologies, software, and regulations. We watch presentations that range from Introduction to UAV Nepali Regulations by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to Introduction to UAV Missions by Patrick Meier. The day ends with an Introduction to Imagery Processing by Kung.

“We want students and young professionals to be instrumental in rebuilding their country,” says Kung. “In providing a strong disaster preparedness in Nepal.”

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Randy Jay Braun at Kathmandu University. Photo © KIKE CALVO

 

“Something that calls my attention is actually the number of women in the training,” says Montgomery. “Only four girls (KU students) have come to the lecture, and only for one hour.”

“I learned, after hearing the CAA, why they had put the regulations in place concerning drones,” says Montgomery. “The country experienced multiple problems after the earthquake, with too many people, including foreigners, flying recklessly and without permission. And this all came with no cooperation with the government. It was really special to see the CAA involved with Kathmandu University and Kathmandu Living Labs. This cooperating with the government and the CAA will allow them to see drone mapping as a good thing. Something that can not only benefit students and professionals, but Nepal as well.”

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Pix4D team processing aerial images at Kathmandu University. Photo © KIKE CALVO

 

This kind of relationship could be instrumental in the future of many countries. The drone industry must focus on adapting to the changing laws, with a better understanding between government departments and professional companies. This is currently a problem in moving forward with drone mapping in the United States, due to legislation.

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Nepali woman holding a drone for the first time. Photo © KIKE CALVO

Thursday, September 24 – Flight Training & Aerial Surveys

The second day focuses on direct hands-on training. DJI took the lead by training 30+ participants on how to use the Phantom 3 UAVs safely, responsibly. Pix4D, also on site, followed up.

“Something that I noticed on Thursday was actually how up to date and informed the students were,” says Montgomery. “Many of them had already heard about the software, were aware of some of the uses of drones, and one was doing his bachelor’s thesis on a comparison of photogrammetry software (including Pix4Dmapper). Many of the teachers had already been testing with drones in collaboration with other organizations or at the school, and while most of the students had never flown a drone before or used Pix4Dmapper, the fact that they were already informed about this cutting-edge workflow was impressive. They had been waiting, and were excited to try out the Phantom 3s and Pix4Dmapper.”

 

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Tenjin Dorgee learning the basics of drone flying. Photo © KIKE CALVO

“I don’t think I could even call this training a “humanitarian mission,” adds Montgomery. “Apart from a donation of time, Phantom 3s from DJI and Pix4Dmapper license from Pix4D, the whole training was a well-organized collaboration, with government involvement, KLL labs, KU staff, professors and students eager and active in the training. It didn’t feel like a mission, just like a very special opportunity to train young students and professionals (like we do all over the world) on how to use our software.”

While the hands-on training is taking place, many people approach us, including a monk named Tenjin Dorgee.

“I thought you were doing a pilot training on the mountain, just a pilot training. And now I see what you’re doing here and better understand,” Dorgee comments. When Krista and Olivier had gone to explore and map the Nammo Buddah monastery on Tuesday, it was the first time Dorgee had seen a drone. He did not meet with the team. He just watched from a distance.

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Nepali children playing soccer at Kathmandu University. Photo © KIKE CALVO

 

Tenjin describes the damage to the stupas and some of the structures that we saw at Nammo Buddah. “Before the earthquake in Nepal, the land, the stupas, before the earthquake it wasn’t like that. It was very very clean and very straight (stupa),” explains Tenjin, “And in my village if you take these pictures, you make a video, if you show to the people of your country they will feel happy, and they will get a new knowledge on what is and what was in Nepal. What kinds of temples, what kinds of religions are in Nepal, and they will know, have new education and knowledge.”

The UAV flight training takes place at Kathmandu University central campus football field. The training is memorable from the moment we arrive. Dozens of monks dressed up in colorful reddish traditional clothing are running after a football. The scene could be well be part of a movie.

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Photo © KIKE CALVO

With written permission from the CAA, the second part of the day is devoted to developing an aerial survey of Panga, located in Kirtipur Municipality. Together with Community Disaster Management Committee (CDMC-9), we plan to survey the seriously affected town of Panga. Entering this area after the earthquake impact a few months earlier has projected an image in my mind of a warzone. The two teams fly for several hours with Phantom’s 3 and Phantom Vision 2, gathering high-resolution aerial imagery. Operations are coordinated at all times with our Nepali partners and most flights take off from rooftops across town.

“We didn’t imagine the earthquake would happen like this,” says Community Disaster Management Committee volunteer Janak lal Maharjan. “We feel our people were not prepared. It was too much for us.“

“We just practiced what would happen, but it was not enough,” lal Maharjan tells us. “We didn’t have enough equipment, good equipment. Because of lack of good equipment we failed to save some lives.”

This lack of equipment includes cutting machines that can slice through concrete and metal, or machines to lift very heavy objects: resources that were not available in many places where they were needed.

The Community Disaster Management Committee (9th ward, Kirtipur, Panga) is a volunteer organization that works in emergency management, preparing for and training others in how to handle a disaster. It was established 10 years ago and it consists of 20 leaders and 100 volunteers. The committee trains people in carrying out rescues and performing first aid. They’ve visited Haiti and Pakistan post-earthquake and use videos of these disasters along with earthquake simulations and dramas in their training.

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Photo © KIKE CALVO

“There was that top of a concrete building that collapsed,” says lal Maharjan, while pointing to the street across from us as we walk through the area. “People were trapped under concrete slabs there and could not be saved.”

After the earthquake, the CDMC and volunteers moved everyone, especially the young and old, to safe places around the city. “We went out to rescue people,” remembers lal Maharjan.” We took the old and disabled to a safe (open) place first. There was heavy rain but we did not have tents. Some nights these people stayed out under open sky. People were afraid to go back into the buildings. This went on for two or three days.”

“Food and supplies were brought to the village for two weeks from Kathmandu,” Maharjan continues. “It was “difficult to go into our village because of collapsed houses. All the village was locked in by collapsed houses.”

If they had had good maps at that time, they could have been used to plan routes in and out of the city, in order to create supply lines and better organize search and rescue. When people access these areas from outside, they are not familiar with the locations. Maps can be of great use. Panga village wasn’t totally destroyed. Things could have been worse, if the earthquake had happened at night while everyone was asleep inside.

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Photo © KIKE CALVO

“There was that top of a concrete building that collapsed,” says lal Maharjan, while pointing to the street across from us as we walk through the area. “People were trapped under concrete slabs there and could not be saved.”

After the earthquake, the CDMC and volunteers moved everyone, especially the young and old, to safe places around the city. “We went out to rescue people,” remembers lal Maharjan.” We took the old and disabled to a safe (open) place first. There was heavy rain but we did not have tents. Some nights these people stayed out under open sky. People were afraid to go back into the buildings. This went on for two or three days.”

 

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Photo © KIKE CALVO

“Food and supplies were brought to the village for two weeks from Kathmandu,” Maharjan continues. “It was “difficult to go into our village because of collapsed houses. All the village was locked in by collapsed houses.”

If they had had good maps at that time, they could have been used to plan routes in and out of the city, in order to create supply lines and better organize search and rescue. When people access these areas from outside, they are not familiar with the locations. Maps can be of great use. Panga village wasn’t totally destroyed. Things could have been worse, if the earthquake had happened at night while everyone was asleep inside.

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William Xie helping a Nepali man understand the basics of UAV flying. Photo © KIKE CALVO

 

Friday September 25 – Mapping Software Hands-On Training

As the day begins, Pix4D provides training on how to use their software. Krista explains how to analyze all the aerial imagery that has been previously collected.

“On Friday I stayed in the lab with the students for the Pix4Dmapper training,” says Montgomery. “The other members of my team, Ao and Olivier, went back to Panga village to do more mapping. It was such a pleasure to show them more about the software and answer questions. Everyone was really engaged and excited to be there.”

 

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Photo © Randy Braun / DJI

“I was quite interested early on,” says Mahesh Thapa, who has been working for the Survey Department of Nepal for three years now. “I work in the photogrammetry section of the department, so it’s a natural inclination for me.”

Thapa studied geomatics engineering and first heard about drones first on the Internet. The survey department has been planning on getting a UAV, but due to the earthquake the government cut budgets in many areas and they are waiting to get enough funds.

“But the department is still interested in using this technology for mapping, so maybe in two or three years it will add the new technology,” Thapa says hopefully. “But you know that departments are like big elephants, so they don’t take new technologies so easily.”

 

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Photo © KIKE CALVO

 

He tells us that last year he was asked by an authority to map a sand mine area, and although he ended up using a total station, he had considered using drones. “At that time I was looking at some technologies, maybe we could do it by UAVs,” Thapa says. “But we didn’t have the UAVs or the software. Maybe in the case of Nepal, besides humanitarian purposes, there are other opportunities to use drone tech. We need to let the authorities know that this technology is out there and we can use it.”

Thapa is part of a small, new collaboration of Geomatics engineers, and hopes to inform everyone about this technology through the organization.

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Photo © KIKE CALVO

“When we studied four years back, we never heard about UAVs, you know,” Thapa tells us. “This is such a dynamic field. Every so often new technologies pop up, and we need to be updated.”

“Without training,” adds Thapa, “learning these new technologies is difficult, or not even possible. In many organizations, survey departments, or department of mines, those that use mapping technologies are just too old to use these new technologies. They are not friendly with these new technologies, so maybe we need to somehow convince them.”

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Photo © KIKE CALVO

“Financing equipment and research on drone mapping may initially be a challenge for Nepali people,” Kung cautions. “Possibly until this workflow becomes more standard and the profitability and usefulness of it better known there.”

By the time Kathmandu Living Labs has started their training on how to use Open Street Maps to trace this aerial imagery, I have to leave to the airport. My documenting adventure has come to an end. Three flights, one to Abu Dhabi, a second to New York and a last one to Panama, allow me to cross the world and begin my upcoming expedition, boarding the National Geographic Explorer in Panama, and traveling all the way down to Lima while aboard.

 

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Patrick Meier and Randy Jay Braun with the author, National Geographic Creative photographer Kike Calvo.

 

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District of Panga. Photo © KIKE CALVO

“Apart from the legislation in Nepal regarding drones, which I’m optimistic will change,” reflects Montgomery, “We didn’t face too many challenges during this training. Most of the surprises on the trip ended up being good ones.”

“We learned just how useful, beyond what we had in mind, these maps can be both in disaster preparedness, response, and as tools to preserve cultural aspects of an area,” says Patrick Meier. “Nepal is at risk for seismic activity and I hope those we trained, as well as Kathmandu University, can be instrumental in preparing maps for disaster preparedness, as well as go forward with using UAV mapping for reconstruction.”

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Hundreds of images were used in the creation of this high-resolution orthorectified mosaic of the district of Panga. © Pix4D

 

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Detail of the orthorectified mosaic © Pix4D

 

 

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