Humanitarian UAV Training Mission in Nepal – Interview with Krista Montgomery and Patrick Meier

Pix4D recently participated in a week long UAV training mission in Nepal, along with DJI, the Humanitarian UAV Network, and Kathmandu Living Labs. The goal was to teach engineering students and young professionals at Kathmandu University how to use drones and image-processing software for disaster response.

In the event of an earthquake like the one that struck Nepal in spring 2015, maps and models produced from drone-acquired imagery and image-processing software can help assist search and rescue operations, damage assessment, reconstruction, preparedness planning and cultural preservation. This project confirmed that with a bit of training, professionals across the globe can gain valuable information from the use of drones and image processing software, in disaster situations and more.

We spoke with Krista Montgomery of Pix4D, and Peter Meier of the Humanitarian UAV Network to learn more about the project.


DB: Pix4D recently released a story about a humanitarian project involving drones and disaster relief in Nepal. Can you give us a little background on the project?

KM: The project started in response to the efforts of Patrick Meier, founder of The Humanitarian UAV Network, which promotes the safe and effective use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. After the severe earthquakes in Nepal this spring, the country saw UAV teams from different sectors show up in response. Unfortunately, safety concerns and a lack of collaboration between the teams and with authorities led to drone confiscations and ultimately, strict regulation on UAV flight by Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAAN).

This situation helped inform Patrick’s decision to come to Nepal and reach out to Pix4D and DJI for the training: the idea that Nepal could really benefit by having a local team of UAV experts who are well connected to their government and disaster response agencies, and could take the lead the next time an earthquake hits. The Humanitarian UAV network had already been collaborating with Kathmandu Living Labs to set up a UAV innovation lab in Nepal, and this training seemed like a perfect time to inaugurate that lab.


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DB: How did Pix4D get involved with the project, and how did you get connected with Kathmandu University?

KM: This summer we were contacted by Michael Perry, communications director at DJI. He said they were working with the Humanitarian UAV Network to provide a training on the use of drones for disaster relief in Nepal and were looking for partner for the mapping aspect. We agreed to be involved immediately and started speaking with Patrick Meier, who connected the training team to partners at Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) and Kathmandu University (KU).


DB: What were the primary goals of the project? Were you successful in fully meeting those goals?

KM: The large, overhanging goal of the project was that this training would be instrumental in building a community of Nepali UAV operators, who could both operate and maintain UAVs as well as collect and analyze the imagery obtained by them. On a smaller scale, we wanted to ensure that the engineering students participating in the training learned first-hand how to fly drones, create specialized flight plans for acquiring images, utilize Pix4Dmapper software to create 3D models and 2D maps from these images, and be able to analyze the outputs. We wanted them to understand the value of high resolution imagery and up-to-date maps in disaster preparedness and damage assessment.

This training saw professors from KU, officials from CAAN, scientists from KLL, young professionals and engineering students working together and imagining the possibilities that drones and drone imagery have for disaster response. The participants were extremely motivated and eager to learn, and with the software donation from Pix4D and Phantom 3 donations from DJI, they now have direct access to tools for continued work after the training. I would definitely say we were successful in meeting our short-term goals, and I’m hopeful that the overhanging goal of the project will also prove successful with time.


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DB: How does the mapping technology work? How will that aid in disaster response in Nepal?

KM: Pix4D’s software is based on principles from photogrammetry and computer vision: it takes images and turns them into accurate maps and 3D models. By using a flight planning app, you can tell a drone when to capture overlapping images of an area, then use those images in Pix4Dmapper to create 3D models and orthomosaics of an area. In an emergency response scenario, these kind of maps and models provide critical information for disaster relief.

Satellite imagery has been used in these situations for decades, but has its shortcomings: Availability, spatial resolution and restrictive vertical perspective have limited its usability. Drones, on the other hand, are low-cost and can be combined with image processing software to provide frequent surveys of rapidly changing areas, which is crucial in disaster areas. Using drone imagery, you can get high resolution outputs without cloud coverage issues, as well as see areas not just from a vertical perspective but also from the sides.

In Nepal, maps and models produced from drone-acquired imagery and image-processing software can help assist search and rescue operations, damage assessment, reconstruction, preparedness planning and cultural preservation.


DB: What was it like being on the ground there and seeing the disaster cleanup efforts firsthand? How did the aerial view affect the perspective on how to approach rebuilding?

During the training, we received permission from the CAAN to fly over the village of Panga, which had been badly damaged in the earthquake. I think the most surprising thing was just how much rubble and damage had not been cleaned up yet – and for good reason. It was all being done by hand, locally, and without equipment. The village had hundreds of buildings spread over a pretty large area, with no real way to evaluate how many had been damaged, how much had been cleared away, and what was being rebuilt.

Using drone imagery, you can get a much more comprehensive picture of reality, and at the same time have high enough resolution to look closely at details. Flights and processing are short, so you can monitor areas over time. Also, using these images in Pix4Dmapper to create 3D models means capturing a valuable perspective that you wouldn’t have either from the ground or from satellite imagery.

I remember speaking to a member of the Community Disaster Management Committee in Panga, Janak lal Maharjan, who said after the earthquake, the village was locked in by collapsed houses. If they had had good maps at the time, he said, they could have been used to plan routes in and out of the city for supply lines as well as manage search and rescue.


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DB: Do you or DJI (or the Humanitarian UAV Network) have plans to go back to continue training, or to do similar training in other places?

KM: Pix4D doesn’t have any definitive plans to go back right now, but we are very interested seeing what our Nepali partners will continue to do with drone-mapping, both in the disaster preparedness/response arena and in other sectors.

PM: Yes, this first mission to Nepal, which was spearheaded by the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), is part of Kathmandu Flying Labs, a local UAV innovation lab that I am co-creating with local partners. We will be returning to Nepal in early 2016 with other technology partners to provide hands-on training (fixed-wing UAVs this time) to our local partners and will again carry out aerial surveys in collaboration with our local partners. More here. Other local partners in Indonesia, Liberia, Chile and Haiti have since approached us to co-create Jakarta Flying Labs, Monrovia Flying Labs, Santiago Flying Labs and Port-au-Prince Flying Labs. 

The UAViators Advisory Board includes the UN, World Bank, Red Cross, European Commission, Google, DJI, 3DR and many others. We provide provide hands-on professional UAV training for humanitarian organizations and spearhead humanitarian UAV missions like the one in Nepal. We also champion an international Code of Conduct to inform the responsible use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. Finally, we organize Experts Meetings to catalyze information sharing and direct collaboration between the humanitarian and drone industry. More on all this at And more on my own background here.


DB: What other applications do drones offer to aid in disaster relief and response? How do you see those developing in the next few years?

PM: Other applications beyond data collection (sensors) include payload delivery via drones. We’re collaborating with multiple groups to pilot the use of payload delivery for humanitarian projects. Another use-case is communication services, ie, using a network of drones to provide meshed mobile communication services. This is a key application for the humanitarian space. 

On a different note, I think it is very important to manage expectations vis-a-vis the role of drones in the humanitarian space. There is so much hype; this is not helpful for either the drone industry or the humanitarian sector. I would rather we under promise and over deliver than the other way around. 


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DB: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?

KM: It was a pleasure to work first hand with these tech companies and Nepali leaders for the training. There was this beautiful energy from the students that made it exciting to teach them more about the software. What I also found special was the way KLL, KU, and CAAN worked together to explore the possibilities drone mapping has for emergency response and for other industries. That kind of mutual respect and teamwork will lead to an advancement of innovation in Nepal, I think, that other countries could benefit from emulating.



About Pix4D: Pix4D is a Swiss company founded in 2011 that develops and distributes Pix4Dmapper, a photogrammetric software that creates professional maps and models purely from images.

About the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators): UAViators promotes the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs for data collection, payload delivery and communication services in a wide range of humanitarian and development settings. They do this by developing and championing international guidelines for the responsible use of UAVs.

Cover Photo: Participants pose for a photo during flight training with DJI. Photo by Kike Calvo