NEW DELHI -- Drones have an image problem because of their role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. But not all drones are killing machines. Some are the opposite, as demonstrated by their deployment to aid the humanitarian effort in quake-ravaged Nepal.
The skies above Kathmandu filled with foreign planes carrying humanitarian aid soon after the devastating earthquake of April 25. Small drones were brought in on the planes by disaster relief organizations to provide aerial support to teams on the ground.
One such drone is the Scout, a four-legged, propeller driven machine that takes off and lands vertically. Made by the Canadian company Aeryon Labs, the Scout measures 72cm in diameter and weighs 1.4kg.
A Scout drone was flying in front of a Hindu temple in Kathmandu on April 30. Two others were being flown in the skies above the Sindhupalchok District of Nepal, where many people were killed in the earthquake.
Engineers from three organizations controlled the drones: maker Aeryon Labs, partner company Monadrone of Monaco and the Canadian humanitarian aid organization GlobalMedic.
For GlobalMedic, the drones provide essential information, capturing images of quake-stricken regions before aid workers reach them. The aid organization makes plans for supplying victims of the disaster with food, water and tents based on information collected by drones.
Limited space and collapsed buildings meant the drones proved extremely beneficial, said Aeryon Labs senior marketing manager Andrea Sangster. In addition, the infrared cameras mounted on the drones could help locate survivors, she added.
Other drones also were deployed to Nepal to help the humanitarian effort.
SkyCatch, a drone venture set up by U.S. Navy veterans, dispatched operators to fly machines and capture images essential to United Nations aid efforts.
The National Disaster Response Force of neighboring India, which was first on the scene to help in Nepal, is using the Netra drone for its aid effort.
India's National Disaster Response Force owns one Netra drone, which had been stationed at its base in Pune, central India, since 2013. But the machine will remain in Nepal as long as rescue operations are ongoing. "We will continue to deploy Netra for searches in mountainous regions where there is no communications infrastructure," said S.S. Guleria, deputy inspector general of the force.
Humanitarian aid organizations from across the world are mobilizing drones to get a grasp on the extent of the damage in Nepal. The Nepalese government has neither the physical nor political resources to collect information nationwide and determine which areas need help the most.
Nepal is a mountainous country: The difference in elevation between the lowest and highest points is 8,000 meters. Communications networks do not reach many places in the country. Only 3% of the population is connected to phone lines. Although wireless phones help compensate for the lack of wired infrastructure, the earthquake caused damage to wireless base stations and made even cellular networks difficult to use.
With less than 20 helicopters at its disposal, the Nepalese military had only limited capacity to observe the situation from the air.
Nepal's government, which has seen years of political strife, was unprepared to check on the state of the nation when the earthquake struck. "This is not a usual government that can provide conventional government services across the country," explained George Varughese, Nepal representative for the U.S.-based Asia Foundation.
While drones help in Nepal, in nearby Pakistan they are denounced and loathed as murder machines.
Just two days before the earthquake on April 23, the U.S. conceded that a drone strike in January in the Pakistan-Afghan border region resulted in the deaths of two innocent hostages -- one American, one Italian. President Obama personally expressed profound regret and offered apologies to the families.
In Pakistan, this triggered denouncements and accusations of a double standard by the White House, unapologetic for the Pakistanis killed in errant drone bombings but quick to apologize for the deaths of Westerners.
The Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that 1,500 innocent people have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan, according to the Associated Press. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has demanded that the Obama administration immediately halt the drone attacks in his country.
But the drone era appears here to stay. In South Asia, large military drones rain down death as tiny humanitarian drones help disaster relief.
The Scout drones made by Aeryon Labs currently at least cost $60,000. That price is still too high for many small NGOs. But as 3-D printers and other new technologies reduce production costs, widespread adoption of drones for disaster relief looks very likely.