Banning drones not the solution, opines researcher and those in the film industry  

Drones: The recent blanket ban on using drones didn’t go down well with those, who feel that the latest technology could bring down cost and save time in every field.

Researchers from the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Environment and Conservation (UWICE) and park officials feel that drones must be allowed for government environmental studies, mapping land use, disasters and for anti-poaching activities.

Drones were banned in the Bhutanese airspace until proper regulations are framed.  The ban is imposed to ensure aviation safety in international and domestic airports.  Except for governmental purposes, no one will be allowed to use drones.

UWICE researchers said the department of civil aviation (DCA), Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) and other regulating agencies must take a better approach to drones than just proscribing its use. “While it’s only wise to be careful with introduction of any new technology, banning, however is not the solution,” UWICE senior researcher, Nawang Norbu said, adding that drones have become an integral part of a conservation institute to carry out research.

UWICE bought a drone eBee with a wingspan size of an eagle from Switzerland in 2014.  The remote controlled drone weighing 700g can cover Bumthang to Ura in a single flight, which is around 25km.  The eBee was flown just once under special permission in June 2014 during the 14th International Society for Ethnobiology congress.  Since then, the eBee has been grounded.

The institute tried to avail permission for further use, but was rejected on the grounds of absence of regulations.  The ban, they feel, is hampering the study of pressing issues like receding glaciers and snow cover, which cannot wait for the regulations.

“Rather than banning, everyone must come together to push forward and encourage the use of such advanced technologies,” Nawang Norbu said, adding such technologies would enable future generations in making good science happen in Bhutan.  “Drones can particularly enhance study of snow cover in the Himalayas that has only limited studies and information,” UWICE researcher Changa Tshering said.

Filmmakers call the blanket ban discouraging for the booming industry. “The advent of unmanned aircraft systems is a huge technological boon to filmmakers and photographers alike,” said an independent filmmaker. “It’s a new godsend tool for storytellers that will allow for creative and exciting aerial shots— at a fraction of the hire charge of a real helicopter.”

They feel that aerial film scenes in Bhutan remained unrealistic until drone technology came on scene. “In contrast to a manned helicopter, commercial unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, cost anywhere between USD 1,000 and 3,000, which is cheap, given the kind of cinematic dynamics and visual entertainment value it will bring to our films,” said the filmmaker.

“Imagine waiting your whole life for something and, when it finally does come, someone powerful enters and snatches it away. What the Bhutanese film industry needs today is support and if our authorities can’t give that, then at least don’t make it worse for them.”

Both researchers and filmmakers have suggestions instead of a blanket ban. “The way forward is to revisit the ban and differentiate drone hobbyists and tourists from professional Bhutanese drone users like filmmakers and photographers including others for like research purposes—and have a case-by-case basis exemptions,” the filmmaker said.

They suggest authorities to list down no-fly zone sensitive areas like dzongs, airports and army establishments among others in the contract and grant operational approvals or licenses to genuine cases.

Changa Tshering said drones could also be allowed in places outside the flight paths like in the northern and eastern regions where flights are hardly seen.

DCA director Wangdi Gyaltshen however said that drones were allowed for environmental studies in the past in the larger interest of the country. “There will be exceptions for similar studies in future also.”

By Tempa Wangdi, Bumthang