How Skycatch Drones Are Helping Save Nepal’s UNESCO Heritage Sites


Across Kathmandu, UNESCO World Heritage sites have suffered significant damage due to the M7.8 earthquake that rocked Nepal on Saturday, April 25th. But the threat to these historic buildings is far from over. Monsoon in Nepal is just around the corner, and these historic sites lay vulnerable to mother nature.

A small team from Skycatch, a San Francisco-based startup that specializes in data mapping from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) flew into Kathmandu a few days ago. They’re on a mission to provide an accurate 3D model of the damaged UNESCO Heritage sites, so that proactive steps can be taken to protect them before the monsoon season starts.

Skycatch’s orange quadcopters are made of carbon fiber, with disposable plastic propellers. The sleek portable design, and it’s potential to help preserve Nepal’s cultural history inspired me to learn more about these drone.

“What does it capture besides video?” I asked David Chen, Director of Engineering at Skycatch, on the rooftop where the Skycatch team had just launched a drone to map the Kathmandu Durbar Square.

“It doesn’t capture video,” he told me. “It takes 2 dimensional photos every couple seconds, which our software converts into an accurate 3D model of the area. We will make the 3D maps available on our website.”

David Chen, Director of Engineering at Skycatch, with the drone

Shekhar Dongal, a local architect, is assisting the Skycatch team on the ground in Kathmandu and getting the necessary permissions to fly these drones over Nepal’s most culturally sensitive areas. “We needed permission from the Department of Archeology, Civil Aviation Authority, Ministry of Information and Communication, Home Ministry and the Defense Ministry,” he said.

“Monsoon is only 2 or 3 weeks away, and to prevent further damage to these historic buildings, they need better support than just timber and sheets of metal.” Dongal told me. “We will share the 3D maps that Skycatch will generate with UNESCO and ask them for help in securing these sites before monsoon hits.”

Kurt Brunken, a volunteer for Team Rubicon, is providing technical and tactical support to the Skycatch team in Kathmandu. When not volunteering, he’s a Systems Engineer for Boeing in Washington D.C. He said, “Drones are a proven technology. All the technical challenges have already been worked out. They’ve been used for years in the agricultural industry in America.”

Team Rubicon launched Operation Tenzing immediately after the earthquake, and deployed 41 volunteers as a medical and assessment team to aid the Nepalese people.

Team Rubicon member in Nepal with Operation Tenzing

“Skycatch is taking immediate action to assist the people of Nepal and the relief organizations on the ground. Our thoughts are with everyone who has been impacted by the earthquake,” Christian Sanz, CEO and Founder of Skycatch, said on the company website.

Skycatch will make their rich 3D maps of Kathmandu’s various Heritage Sites available to public to see at Skycatch.com/nepal.

The Skycatch mission to fully map the Kathmandu Durbar Square today was interrupted by a sudden downpour in the afternoon. They had to suspend drone flights for the day, but this rainfall only underscored the importance and urgency of the work Skycatch is doing here in Nepal.

With the monsoon fast approaching, Skycatch, UNESCO and others are racing against time to map, assess and implement protective measures to preserve what remains at these Heritage sites.

If you enjoyed reading this, you should probably follow me on Twitter at @amrit_sharma.