Patrick Meier knew he was on to something when he had to cancel his flight home. The founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network had spent a week in Panga — outside Kathmandu, Nepal — leading efforts to map the small town with drones. But the local Community Disaster Management Committee didn’t want him to leave yet, they were asking for even more maps to aid in the recovery effort. 

“It kind of threw a wrench in our plans, but it was the best possible wrench,” Meier recalled of his late September trip. “That’s when you know you’re being useful.”

Meier extended his stay by a couple days. The next morning the mapping began at sunrise. The team skipped lunch and worked till sunset made it too dark to fly. The crisp aerial photos and 3D models were a huge upgrade from existing maps and blurry satellite images, where a row of small houses could appear as a blob. The new maps are a way to track the recovery process, such as where debris has been cleared and what houses are likely to collapse.

“One of the members [of the disaster management committee] was telling me how they were recreating their local town on the ground, on an area of dirt with sand, so they were just taking a stick or something and mapping out the area they wanted to focus on,” Meier said.

The maps Meier was providing — with the help of partners — were printed out so locals could label them with stickers to denote clean drinking water, health clinics, debris and more.

While the cheap aerial imagery drones provide would seem an obvious help for disaster recovery, early adopters of the technology are still mastering how to use it effectively.

“There was a bit of a mess after the Nepal earthquake,” Meier said. “You had a lot of people coming in and not really understanding the local dynamics, the regulations, the culture and maybe I would say, causing more harm than good even though their intentions were in the right place.”

Meier is a believer in drones and a strong advocate for using them responsibly. He’s developing guidelines for Humanitarian UAV Missions. (You can view them here, and offer feedback here.) His Humanitarian UAV Network, also known as UAViators, is an initiative of the Qatar Computing Research Institute.

Since early 2014 Meier had been talking with Nama Budhathoki, executive director of Kathmandu Living Labs, about how drones could be useful in Nepal. Having seen the shortcomings of some attempts to use drones, Meier knew the right local partners mattered. So they brought in Kathmandu University, which obtained permission from aviation authorities to fly in Nepal.

DJI donated 10 drones and trained more than 30 Kathmandu University students on how to use them. Pix4D shared its software and offered guidance on how to use it, so the images taken from the drones could be stitched into maps and 3D models. While Meier has left, the hope is that the drones can still be used for good, given the new skills that have been taught.

Meier and Budhathoki are co-founding Kathmandu Flying Labs, the first example of what Meier sees as a model for using drones for humanitarian purposes globally.

“Why not in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, having a Lusaka flying labs there or Lima, Peru, having a flying labs,” said Meier, who envisions the labs sharing best practices. Instead of only operating following disasters, the flying labs would have a business element to sustain themselves, such as delivering medical supplies to remote areas, a topic Meier found excited physicians he spoke with in Nepal.

“The last thing that I want to see is these UAVs packed up in a box for nine months of a year, and then when a disaster happens, all of the sudden, everybody has to get out and start flying these UAVs that they haven’t been practicing for nine months,” Meier said.

He’s exploring Jakarta as a possible next location, given its cyclical floods. There’s a lot of work ahead, as Meier acknowledges. But his focus on finding the key local players and respecting cultures while leveraging his global network of drone connections seems like a potent formula.