Nepal Robotics Project Aims to Locate Disaster Victims

Mike Kronmiller is the creator and owner of Nepal Robotics Project. The international collaborative robotics project aims to develop drones that are capable of locating disaster victims, supporting disaster avoidance, and inspecting vulnerable bridges and aerial lines and cables in Nepal, and worldwide. In 2015 and 2016, his drones were tested at Mount Everest, flying from 1,000 feet above Base Camp to over 19.000 feet above sea level. In 2017, he will test the new system, there, with plans to exceed 23.000 feet in sustained, autonomous flight, carrying an array of sensors.

Solving Problems with Technology

The Nepal Robotics Project stemmed from seemingly simple beginnings. “I started the organization about three years ago. Originally, it was for my high school senior year STEM course,” explains Kronmiller. “We were instructed to solve a problem in the world using technology. I wanted to solve search and recovery issues in avalanche environments with robots.”

As Kronmiller’s project grows, he’s narrowed “robots” down specifically to drones, and has surpassed the level of involvement that many would expect for a senior project assignment.

The Path to 3D Printing

The project has taken several turns since it first began years ago. “In the past, I tried kit-based systems, but found they’re not ideal for my circumstances. I work in high-altitude environments, and the kit systems were often subject to part failures and crashes,” Kronmiller says. “Now, I am designing my own drone so I can easily swap parts on the fly, without leaving the field.”

Close up of 3D-printed drone arm
Close up of Kronmiller’s 3D-printed drone arm.

That’s why he brought in 3D printers. “The Afinia H800 was recommended to me by another drone enthusiast about a year ago, who was also designing parts that had to be very consistent and robust,” explains Kronmiller. “The 3D printer at my high school just didn’t cut it. It was hard to use, so switching to the Afinia seemed like a great choice. The enclosure has made it easy to avoid the warping and shrinking of printed parts.”

After seeing what the Afinia 3D printer can do, Kronmiller recommended the H800 for his college’s makerspace and for the makerspaces being established in Nepal. “It works much better than what they have in their space currently! Especially with the new software, it’s much more streamlined,” he says. “Plus, the price is really competitive. I’ve had people say to me, ‘oh my gosh! This must have cost like $5,000!’ because of the quality of the prints.”

Customizing the Drones

Due to the situations for which the drones are needed, Kronmiller has begun customizing his drones. “The Afinia 3D printers have been really helpful for designing the drone and all of its parts,” he says. With his five years of CAD experience, Kronmiller has been able to design the drones for his specific needs.

Main enclosure iterations
Various iterations show the progression of the main enclosure component. The latest iteration includes rails that allow Kronmiller to attach the flight computer, telemetry, GPS, compass, and Raspberry pi (for camera control and wireless transmission) to the interior for rapid replacement.

“For example, I’ve used the 3D printers to create a mount for the electronic speed controllers so they don’t just dangle on the side of the drone,” he explains. “It makes it more secure, and easier to swap out parts if something gets damaged. The printer can crank out these parts, small ones especially, in a few hours.” Remember, these drones are being developed to operate in the most hostile natural environments on earth.

Bringing the Maker Culture to Nepal

Kronmiller’s goal is bigger than just creating drones to help with natural disasters. “It’s a two-pronged project,” he says, explaining that he wants to design the search- and-rescue and inspection drones, but also educate students in Nepal about drone technology and inspire them to use it to help their own society.

“I currently work with one high school, Kinjirowa National High School in Kathmandu. Without their support, I wouldn’t be able to work with students. Right now, they have six drone kits and each kit can be used by about three to six students. The kits are from the Kashmir World Foundation, and then I adjust the lessons to cater to the Nepalese students’ experience.”

Iterations of weatherproofing drone enclosure
Different iterations of the weatherproofing enclosure for the drone components. Varying colors were used to test for optimum visibility.

Currently, the Minister of Education is encouraging me and Kanjirowa to extend the program to every public and private school in Nepal. “It will be helpful once I finish designing a custom kit, which will be easier to take apart to teach new students,” shares Kronmiller. “I am planning to go back to Nepal in May to meet with not only with the Education Minister, but also the President of Nepal at her request, and with the Home Minister. My guess is that she wants to further discuss how to distribute the technology to other schools in Nepal and find ways for drones to contribute to economic development.”

Overcoming Obstacles

The project is not without hurdles. The biggest challenge for Kronmiller thus far is that shipping to Nepal is difficult and drone flying is strictly controlled for security reasons. “We have to contend with the U.S. export licensing system, which is extremely complex, and we have to secure Nepalese Government authorization for each flight test,” he says. It’s also very expensive. “I’m a non-profit, so everything I do comes out of my own pocket, or from donations.”

“Ultimately, I’d love to send them a 3D printer, so they can print parts them themselves. If something breaks, they could easily replace it,” Kronmiller explains. “I also want to help get the maker culture growing there.” He has been very successful in his project thus far, and Nepal recently held their first Maker Faire, sponsored by U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu.

To keep up to date on the project, you can follow Kronmiller on Twitter, or visit the Nepal Robotics Project blog, Kronmiller and his Nepalese friends update in their limited spare time.