Five years ago, drone flying was the domain of the US military and wealthy hobbyists. Yet, within the last year and a half, researchers at the Swandiri Institute in Pontianak, West Kalimantan have built 13 unmanned aircraft, capable of, among other feats, making near-instantaneous maps of Dayak customary lands to show how they overlap with mining and logging concessions. One drone costs the team Rp 6 million (US$ 500), a paltry sum for technology that until recently was too expensive for most to afford.

The researchers, Arif Munandar and Irendra Rajawali, who is known as Radja, use Chinese replicas of American drones and online do-it-yourself forums to build, program and fly drones that capture aerial imagery as spatial data. “Before the Chinese cracked the code enough to create a replica, a drone could cost up to Rp 1.5 billion in Indonesia,” Arif said. Even then, Arif and Radja did not buy ready-touse machines. They assembled their mapping robots by piecing together body, motor, hard drive and imagery equipment. A simple pocket camera is good enough for capturing high-resolution photos necessary for mapping, said Arif who suggests using the “kind of camera you can get anywhere.” There is now an opensource software program called CHDK that can be used to reprogram cameras. The team uses lithium polymer batteries, “the kind you use in a laptop or a watch.”

For the drone body, they shape hard styrofoam. Radja is quite confident of the designs demonstrated on the YouTube channel Experimental Airlines. Arif suggests buying drone bodies from China. “If you make your own, the aerodynamics are difficult to figure out,” he said. “For Rp 2 million you can buy a factory-made one.”

The most expensive piece of hardware is the Ardupilot or APM (short for ArduPilotMega). This is the drone’s hard drive, its ‘brain’, what makers use to set coordinates for the GPS and program the battery and camera. Hobbyists can buy an Ardupilot for Rp1.8 million.

Arif and Radja experimented with two forms of  homemade drones—helicopter and fixed-wing.The fixed-wing aircraft, or plane, can fly longer and go further because its shape is more aerodynamic. In a single flight, they can fly for an hour and photograph a 500-hectare area. The planes are light because they run on a single motor.

Helicopters, on the other hand, have four propellers, each with its own motor. This adds to the drone’s weight and cuts down on battery efficiency. So the helicopters can only stay airborne for half an hour at a time and cover 60 to 70 hectares. Even so, the four propellers make the helicopters more stable, so they are able to get higher resolution, better quality images.

Radja advises novice drone builders to start their exploration at the online forum,www.diydrones. com. He also recommends a YouTube channel called Flightriot which teaches people how to operate drones and use them for mapping. For fl ying tips specific to Southeast Asia, Radja suggests talking to Singaporean forester Lian Pin, who created an organization called Conservation Drones, and Serge Wich, a British primatologist who uses drones to track orangutan nests.

Operating drones entails tracking weather and flight paths of manned planes. Cloud cover affects satellite signal, which is how drones retrieve their pre-programmed flight coordinates. So, the team sticks to flying on clear, sunny days. Wind, as opposed to cloud cover, can be dealt with. The planes fly on autopilot and are programmed to incorporate wind speed. “For example, if the wind speed is five meters a second, we set drone speed to seven meters per second, ” said Arif.

Just as they built their own drones, the duo established their own code of flying ethics. For safety reasons, they fl y drones a minimum of five kilometers away from airports and check airplane flight paths to ensure that their flight path does not intersect with airplane routes.

“Drones are not toys,” cautioned Arif. “The drones have lithium batteries, it could be dangerous if these hit a plane.” So if they lose contact with a drone, they switch off the machine to ground the drone, and ‘let it go’. The team lost five of their 13 drones in this way, including one in Papua when military radar interfered with the signal. “So far in Indonesia, there is no law or restriction on flying drones,” said Arif. Good thing for Radja: he was detained by police in Sintang, West Kalimantan after being reported for flying over private land. “They couldn’t fine or jail him because there is no law yet on drone use. We didn’t go onto their l and s o i t wasn’ t t respassi ng.  We just flew over it.” The lack of regulation will likely not last long, according to Arif. The United States has already issued regulations on drones. “We think we should push people to use drones now before Indonesia creates laws to restrict their use,” said Arif.