By Sharad KC

Just like in developed countries, drones are getting ever so popular in developing nations. Last month Maggie Doyle, an American social worker, was arrested by authorities in Surkhet, Nepal for flying a UAV without the permission from the local government. Yes, this was the same Maggie Doyle who was recently awarded the CNN hero of the year. There have been numerous other such cases of police cracking down on unauthorized drone flights, especially after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake last year.

Drones have already proven useful to a lot of industries. Farmers use drones to monitor crop growth, insect infestations, and to spray pesticides. Companies like Amazon, UPS, and Google are looking into delivering packages through drones. Drones have also been used in film-making to collect dramatic shots. Other uses include surveying land, monitoring forest fires, and assessing environmental damage from natural calamities.

With the endless possibilities of utilizing drones, we in Nepal are also reaping a few benefits from them. After the recent earthquake, drones were very useful in Nepal for disaster assessment. Drones were used for search and rescue missions and to map out toppled monuments, ruined heritage sites, and devastated homes. In addition, drones have also proven helpful in protecting national parks and combating poachers. In 2012, with the help of WWF Nepal, Chitwan National Park started using drones to capture images and video from hard-to-reach areas in the landscape to monitor Nepal’s flagship species and curb illegal wildlife trade. Drones were also used to carry out academic studies of glaciers. Recently, a group of scientists from Nepal have successfully carried out the survey of a glacier located in Manang district using drones. They used it to carry out glaciological and hydro-meteorological studies, to measure the rate of melting of glaciers over a certain period of time.

While the use of drones has been limited to the humanitarian and academic sectors, the vast commercial opportunity is not one to be missed. Nepal, being an agricultural country, can benefit greatly from innovative uses of drones. The difficult mountainous terrain of the country further justifies the use of drones in hard to reach places as the availability of labor for hard work becomes scarce. Drones can also be useful to the tourism sector. Smaller hotels, villages, and eco-tourist sites can use striking and dynamic aerial images to promote themselves. In addition, drones combined with virtual reality could provide a whole new business opportunity of virtual tourism. Tourists would be able to hear and see the landmarks from the comfort of his/her home, by wearing goggles that are wirelessly connected to the drone.

Drones were used to promote Meghauli Serai, a safari lodge in Chitwan National Park.

The benefits of drones are obvious, but they also come with some serious issues if handled improperly. Drones can be a security threat to the aviation industry, and flying drones near airports can have dangerous consequences. Drones can also be hacked; GPS hacking can make it easy to carry out malicious acts of crime. There have already been several cases of drone usage in smuggling drugs and money into jails and across borders. Even when controlled by skilled, well-intentioned operators, drones can pose a hazard. Hence, it is essential for the government to properly regulate the drone industry to get the maximum benefit out of it.

P.S. If you are a drone and sports enthusiast like me, you can catch all the action of drone racing on TV from now on; it will start with a three-day International Drone Racing Association event held in New York running August 5-8!