Nepal Disaster Response, and Please Don’t Just Go There With a Drone

nepal earthquake

About a week ago, I wrote an article for Slate about how drone pilots were assisting with the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Here’s the article, which is a general overview of the planned response – at the time of writing, not much had actually happened yet with disaster response UAV flights.

 

Patrick Meier, organizer of the UAViators collective of humanitarian drone pilots, filled me in on how the UAV teams affiliated with UAViators would work closely with humanitarian aid organizations and with local officials.. This coordination and organization would hopefully help prevent the skies over Nepal’s disaster areas from becoming dangerously choked with UAVs, flown by teams who weren’t working with or even aware of one another.

Unfortunately, Nepal has just banned the usage of drones without explicit permission from authorities. The stated reason fro Nepali authorities is that the drones could be capable of leaking “sensitive information and pictures of its valuable heritage sites .”

Maybe, maybe not, but you’ve also got to wonder if the influx of drones into Nepal – including those flown by journalists and others who didn’t liase with UAViators – helped to influence this decision. I’m not in Nepal, I don’t know much about Nepal, and I can’t say if that’s actually what happened or not. But as we’ve seen in Cambodia, drone use that isn’t very responsible and very well coordinated with local authorities can lead to hasty lawmaking.

Patrick’s written a great article about his observations from the Nepal disaster response, which you should really read. I especially think his point about building local capacity to do disaster response missions with UAVs is important. With the low price and relative ease of use of todays’ drone technology, here’s no reason why a country should have to wait for UAV teams from developed nations to get in the air.

I support everything he’s said, and would like to reiterate a point here: if you’re planning to book a ticket to Nepal and schlep your drone over there to help, don’t. Or at least, don’t do so without first contacting UAViators, following its Code of Conduct, and making a concrete effort to ensure you’ll be hurting, not helping.

Faine Made a Drone Video: Travel in Cambodia and Thailand

I dragged my Phantom 2 around Southeast Asia last summer. I wondered at the time if this was really a good idea, but the Phantom survived, I survived, and I got to fly it over some pretty cool things in the process. Some observations about travel with the companionship of a drone that fits in a backpack:

Airport security around the world could not care less about your drone. Authorities in Taiwan, Singapore, Cambodia, and Thailand all failed to even ask to look at it. You may have issues if you try to carry-on one of those cans of spray-on deodorant, though. I feel so safe.

You will develop a remarkably keen ability to notice when someone is jostling, sitting on, or just looking funny at the backpack that contains your $1200 piece of specialized aerial equipment. Maybe I developed a mind-link with it. Maybe I’m just crazy?

In my experience, average people in Cambodia and Thailand were deeply disinterested in the drone. Perhaps they wrote it off as yet another inexplicable thing foreign tourists do to amuse themselves. I think the monk sweeping the steps at Wat U-Mong didn’t even look up when we launched it, after we explained what we were doing and secured his permission. Still, watch out for feral dogs. Feral dogs love drones.

Here’s the video. My thanks to the late, great, Sinn Sisamouth.

Faine Flies a Drone in Cambodia and Thailand from Faine Greenwood on Vimeo.

Flying the Drone at Wat Umong in Chiang Mai

wat u mong stupa

Wat Umong is definitely my favorite temple in Chiang Mai. Set a bit outside of the center of town in a lush forest, the 700-year-old Buddhist temple attracts relatively few tourists and has a delightfully jewel-like, slightly eccentric character – commemorative stupas overgrown with greenery, a curious worship area dug into an underground tunnel, and gardens set with tiny, crumbling effigies of both the Buddha and Thailand’s venerated King.

I came here with my Phantom 2 UAV (drone) fully expecting to not be allowed to use it. Much to my surprise, when we asked a monk if it was OK to fly it near the main stupa, he shrugged and gave his assent – and in fact, kept on sweeping leaves off the ground surrounding the stupa with nothing more than a vaguely disinterested glance in its direction once or twice. Noted.

Naga statue at Wat Umong.
Naga statue at Wat Umong.

Here’s the aerial photos. The flat area above the stupa in the image is the roof of the underground tunnels, which were said to have been built by the Lanna King to help keep an absent-minded (or likely dementia afflicted) monk from wandering off. Indeed, the word “umong” translates into tunnel, naming the temple for its most curious feature. The walls of the tunnels, so it’s said, were even helpfully painted with botanical scenes to complete the illusion for the wayward monk.I haven’t the slightest idea if this is true or not, but it’s a good story – and the tunnels are a nice, cool place to poke around for a while.

wat umong
And another, with a slightly better view of the tunnels and their ventilation outlets.

wat umong straight down stupa

Wat Umong is also home to a remarkable variety of animals, from cats to dogs to chickens to ducks, all of them kept to a fat and luxurious standard. The dogs wander from place to place accepting head pats from monks and tourists, and perching themselves luxuriously on the mossy walls of the old temple structures. (Their ranks included a purebred bull terrier on my latest visit, whose origin I would love to know more about).

wat u mong chicken

There are also an unusual number of pretty, pugnacious roosters here, which squabble with one another noisily at random intervals, making for excellent photo ops. Cats and kittens emerge at random intervals from the bushes to push their foreheads against your leg and demand you stop this photography bullshit immediately. Animal lovers will be fond of Wat Umong.

Chicken and stupa.
Chicken and stupa.

It’s also popular for Westerners who are out to learn to mediate, as I figured out a bit embarrassingly late in the game while wondering about the number of silent, confused looking foreigners ambling around the grounds. I can’t say I’ve ever felt a burning desire to do so myself – I mean, you can’t use the Internet – but here’s the link if you feel so inclined.

wat u mong trinkets

My favorite part of Wat Umong is the dilapidated and wonderful garden of small Buddha and royal figurines to the right of the entrance to the tunnels. It’s a weird, jewel-box like place and makes for great photography experiments. A Thai group was filming what appeared to be a soap opera here when I visited, allowing me to view a pretty Thai woman pretending to have a hair-rending mental breakdown over a Buddha image. Then, cut. And she did it again, and again. I admire the energy of actors. for it all looked exceedingly exhausting.

Faceless stone Buddhas.
Faceless stone Buddhas.

Please do visit Wat Umong if you’re in Chiang Mai, encumbered with a drone or otherwise. It is a delightfully peaceful, eccentric little place, one that is in some respects made for a decent book and a sojourn with a friendly dog or a cat, or at least a minimally judgmental chicken. There is even a man who sells ice cream. There is not much more you can ask for in this life.

Hidden Buddha in the trees.
Hidden Buddha in the trees.

 

Flying a Drone at Olympic Stadium – Cambodia

olympic stadiums construction bw

Phnom Penh’s Olympic stadium is saddled with a bit of a misnomer. Begun in 1963, the earthworks-heavy structure was crafted by revered Khmer architect Vann Molyvann, and was originally intended to host the 1963 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games. Politics got in the way, but the stadium and its 50,000 person capacity persist to this day.

Probably the most colorful incident in its history took place in 1965, when the now deceased King Norodom Sihanouk offered up the place for the FIFA World Cup.

the pitch olympic edited

The reason? North Korea, to the shock of everyone, faced Australia in a qualifier, and few countries were diplomatically suitable to receive the DPRK delegation. Sihanouk, a long time friend of North Korea, proved to be a handy go-between. Olympic Stadium hosted the matches in November of 1965, and in incidents that should prove rather awkward for Australian national pride, the DPRK won them both.

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Some of its history is rather more dark. Prior to the Khmer Rouge invasion and during the troubled Lon Nol period, it served as a refugee camp and field hospital (per the records I’ve dug up), providing some measure of shelter to the thousands upon thousands of refugees who streamed into Phnom Penh from the countryside during this period. Upon the Khmer Rouge take-over of the city on April 17th of 1975, numerous military officers were taken to the stadium to be publicly executed.

Nowadays, the stadium is a pleasant spot in the center of the city that is particular favored by local Cambodians in curious spandex get-ups, footballers of various nationalities, and kids playing pick-up games. I admit I’d never been there before I got my Phantom 2, driving by it constantly but never managing to carve out the time or motivation to hop off the bike and have a look. Now, I’ve got a certain new-found appreciation for one of Phnom Penh’s architectural landmarks.

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I shot (most) of these images during Pchum Ben, when the city was pleasingly quiet and empty as a result of the extended religious holiday. If you’re keen to do the same with your own UAV, it’s responsible to shoot at a time when the stadium is relatively empty. The security guards seemed profoundly disinterested in what I was up to, but I’d keep an eye out. It was also surprisingly windy around the stadium in late September, but once I was above 20 feet or so, it slackened a bit and the UAV proved easy to control.

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In Which I Evaluate Some Humanitarian UAVs

Drones desire your affection.
Drones desire your affection.

As those who have interacted with me at any time in the recent past are aware, I’m really fond of UAVs, which some of you might know better as “drones.”

I’m incredibly excited by the possibility of using flying robots with cameras on them in both journalism and in humanitarian aid. They will provide us with a cheap, easy to use, and incredibly versatile way of gathering data, from perspectives humans have rarely had much access to before.

Beyond that: they are extremely cool.

For the past couple of months, I have been working with Patrick Meier, the founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) on a large-scale evaluation of UAVs for humanitarian applications. In this work, I was joined by Peter Mosur and Justine Mackinnon, and I think we did a pretty darn good job.

You can look at the open-to-editing Google spreadsheet we created here.

The public is welcome to make suggestions or add entries. I hope it is useful to those of you who are interested in working with drones for the benefit of humanity.

MakerFaire Day Two: Game of Drones, Flaming Octopi

dragon and ocotopus makerfaire
Flaming dragon AND octopus. As one does.

I spent most of this day at MakerFaire hanging out at the Game of Drones encampment, but got the chance to wander around the main show area again.

I left early in the morning, arriving from my place in Palo Alto around 8:15 AM, and quickly learned one useful MakerFaire trick: the Franklin Templeton Investments outlet in San Mateo was offering free parking to attendees, only about a ten minute walk from the event grounds.

You might want to remember that tip for next year. Why Templeton did this — I can’t answer that one, although it’s certainly not often that I harbor kind thoughts about a global investment firm.

Game of Drones kicked off another long day of vicious aerial robot battles, which were eternally well-attended. I think they’re really onto something here, judging by the rapt fascination of both kids and adults who showed up to watch the action and the well-delivered calling. I could see this being a highly amusing new road-show — like Robot Wars but a lot speedier.

The Barbie Dream Drone.
The Barbie Dream Drone.

A true profusion of UAV makes and models competed in the action, but my favorite was definitely the Barbie Dream Drone, made by Edie Sellars. I think I need to make a My Little Pony themed model for next year.

reiner freeing barbie drone

The safety net proved to be the undoing of more drones today, although the pilots were getting better at avoiding it. On the plus side, the crowd goes nuts when a drone gets tangled in the netting. Also, turns out a PVC tube with a toy gripper claw operated by string works pretty well for getting the UAVs down.

game of drones victory 5

The organizers of MakerFaire seemed to agree about the event: Game of Drones scored an Editors Choice award, which was presented in a delightfully country-fair analogue little blue ribbon. I wish them all the best. And hope to get my filthy paws on one of their Sumo quad airframes soon.

bow before thy flaming octopus

Turns out El Pulpo Mecanico gives the occasional show, with bursts of superheated flame coordinated to blippy electronic music. If you can’t get to Burning Man and are in fact opposed to spending $500+ to hang out with your parents and their friends while they drop endless quantities of acid, the sculptures here at MakerFaire may represent your next best bet. The El Pulpo operators occasionally give the flames full blast without warning, scaring the hell out of the spectators milling around the area. It’s very, very fun to watch.

glassblowing makerfaire

Glassblowing, blacksmithing, jewelry and more by complements of The Crucible. I am fairly certain I’d end up covered in third degree burns if I tried to imitate my favorite Skryim character in real life, but I’m glad someone does it. They’ve got classes on offer if you want to take your faux video game skills into the real world, and make some sweet swords or something. Or spoons. You could also make spoons.

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I managed to resist the urge to buy everything I wanted at MakerFaire, which would have been a hilariously expensive proposition, but this bronze giant squid necklace from Dragon’s Treasure was too awesome to resist. If you’re as fond of eccentric jewelry as me, you should check out their website immediately.

I was also very impressed by the biologically-friendly creations of Bug Under Glass, including beautiful butterfly wing jewelry. And framed beetles riding tiny bicycles, which is pretty much my idea of good home decor.

Here’s some more random-access images: