All posts by Sally French

LiPo battery may have caused RC shop fire

RC pilot Jim Bonnardel has been flying Radio Control aircraft since he was seven-years-old. He’s president of the Silent Electric Flyers of San Diego and owner of Radio Control Specialties.

And on Jan. 16, he watched the shop burn down.

Bonnardel says he suspects it was a LiPo fire,  noting that he was charging a bank of batteries and was on the last one when he stepped away for about 10 minutes.

For years, lithium polymer batteries (LiPos) have gotten a bad rap for being dangerous and unpredictable. Dropping, denting or crushing can shorten the life of the battery and even cause an internal short — a recipe for fire. There are a myriad of guidelines for storing, charging and transporting them.

But for even a highly experienced pilot like Bonnardel, the slightest misstep can cause extreme danger.

So why don’t we just use alkaline batteries — your standard Duracell or Energizer?

“An alkaline battery has much more power than a lithium ion, but it cannot deliver heavy loads,” said Isidor Buchmann, founder and CEO of Cadex Electronics.  “Something like an AA battery is an energy cell, not a power cell. It simply cannot deliver the power needed.”

A drone needs a battery that can handle higher currents. LiPos are power cell batteries, mean they can deliver a lot of energy in a short amount of time. Your standard kitchen clock battery delivers a small amount of power over a long period of time.

“It’s like how a bottle with a bigger mouth can pour out a lot of water more quickly than water with a smaller mouth,” Buchmann said.

John Salt, creator of RC Helicopter Fun, put that amount of energy into perspective.

“Some of my big LiPo packs that I use in some of my largest RC helicopters have as much energy potential stored in them as a couple cups or so of gasoline,” he said. “Get a dozen or so LiPo’s on your work bench and you essentially have a jerry can of gas sitting there from a potential energy standpoint.”

That’s not to say Lithium-ion batteries are not safe.

“Lithium-ion is safe under the right circumstances, but they need to be properly designed and approved,” Buchmann said.

Salt chalks it up to an educational problem.

“LiPo power is just as safe or dangerous as any other high energy fuel source and has to be treated that way,” Salt said.

By that, he recommends storying them in fire safe containers and in safe locations just like fuel.

“Is this “LiPo education” up to the battery manufactures, RC aircraft manufactures, or the individuals flying and using them? I would say all three,” he said.

But there’s one more solution, and DJI, creator of the popular DJI Phantom series of quadcopters, holds the patent to it.

Shortly after the launch of the original Phantom, developers with DJI wanted to ensure that consumers with less experience with soft pack batteries would be able to use them.

“We knew it would be a game changer because it further lowered the barrier for first time pilots interested in quads,” said DJI spokesperson Michael Perry.

Development on the Smart Battery for the Phantom II line of drones began in April 2013.

The Smart Battery’s are also LiPo batteries, with a capacity of 5200 mAh and voltage of 11.1 V. Power management is handled internally, meaning no balance connector is required to charge.

The one major criticism Phantom II users have? The price.

DJI smart batteries cost about $130, in comparison to the $20 LiPo batteries sold on DJI’s site (and often found cheaper on hobby sites).

“We cannot say for now if the price will drop. Part of the reason that the batteries are priced higher than normal LiPos is that all the smart features requires additional hardware (not just the LEDs, but circuitry), software and testing costs,” Perry said. “We feel that the intelligent features that people get out of these batteries corresponds fairly to the price differential with typical batteries.”

And that’s not to say that the DJI Smart Batteries are 100% foolproof.

“Heat is a big enemy of all Lithium battery chemistries, so even a DJI smart pack could be damaged by letting it sit inside a closed vehicle on a hot sunny day for instance,” Salt said. “Chances are it would never start on fire, but there is still some risk there – especially if it’s fully charged.”

Company that makes ‘White House drone’ doesn’t want you flying in D.C. at all

The following piece is an excerpt of a story I wrote for MarketWatch. Read the full story here.

The company that manufactures the drone that crashed on the South Lawn on Monday doesn’t want you to fly drones anywhere close to the White House.

DJI announced plans today to release a mandatory firmware update for its Phantom 2 line of drones that would prevent them from flying within a 15.5-mile radius of downtown Washington, D.C.

“The updated firmware (V3.10) will be released in coming days and adds a No-Fly Zone centered on downtown Washington, D.C. and extends for a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) radius in all directions,” a news release from DJI stated. “Phantom pilots in this area will not be able to take off from or fly into this airspace.”

DJI’s update helps drone users comply with an FAA notice, which restricts unmanned flight around the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

The news comes in the wake of reports that a government employee in D.C. was flying a DJI Phantom at 3 a.m. on Monday and lost control of it, causing the drone tofly onto White House property and crash.

“Some people may not realize how close they are to an airport or other sensitive locations,” said Brendan Schulman, head of commercial drone law at the law firm Kramer Levin. “This [update from DJI] is useful in preventing newcomers from flying in places that would be objectionable.”

But a lot of drone users question whether DJI’s move is necessary.

“Most people are flying at schools and parks, and they aren’t flying any type of large-size aircraft,” said Dale Jones, founder of RCFlyMaps, an iPhone app that uses real time data to tell drone users where they can and can’t fly. “Does that FAA ban relate to tiny little hobby aircraft? I’m not sure.”

The no-drone zone includes the University of Maryland Campus, Virginia’s Lake Barcroft and Little Falls Park in Bethesda, Maryland.

Read the rest of this story on

Meet one of the world’s first aerial cinematographers: Leisa Adkins

The next in our Women in Drones series, Leisa Adkins of Perfect Perspectives. The Ohio-based aerial video company provides 6K UDH Red Epic Dragon aerial video for feature films and TV programs. The company is one of the world’s first RC helicopter filming or aerial video companies with the unmanned payload capacity and experience to safely carry high-definition UDH digital cinematography cameras. In fact, they’ve been carrying 8-10 pound cameras through the year since 2005.

Photo courtesy Leisa Adkins
Photo courtesy Leisa Adkins

Drone Girl: Wow, you’ve been in carrying cinematography cameras through the air since 2005?

Leisa Adkins: We put our first camera on a helicopter in 2004. It did okay but was nitro powered so it was hard to keep smoke out of the shots. We quickly bought a big gas powered helicopter to resolve the smoke problem. We then started shooting music videos, golf courses and TV commercials using a 7 lb. Panasonic HV200 camera. The whole rig was very heavy and weighed 36 lbs. but was very reliable and stable in the wind. I wanted to start the business much sooner but it was just about impossible at the time to get liability or hull insurance for a drone.

DG: When did you first get into RC then?

LA: Back in the early 80’s, one (of my friends) was using an RC helicopter and a fixed 35mm camera to take photos of celebrity homes in Miami for the National Enquirer. Another did something similar by taking photos of vacation homes in Canada. Neither one could see what the camera was pointed at in the air and just shot away hoping to get anything. My family has been heavily involved in RC helicopters for over 35 years now. Both flying in, and organizing events and competitions.

DG: So drones are a family affair for you?

LA: We started the XFC Extreme Flight Championships, for example, with a couple of our friends. In 1993 my husband, Wendell, and I, along with our two daughters helped the United States Team win an FAI-F3C Helicopter World Championship in Velden, Austria. Wendell flew and I was the mechanic/caller. Later in 1998, Wendell flew an animatronic bird from one of our helicopters in Sharon Stone’s movie “The Mighty”.

DG: So you’ve been in this a long time. What changes have you noticed in the industry, even in the past year?

LA: Low cost GPS autopilots and multicopters. The first autopilot we looked at cost $20,000 and we couldn’t justify or afford it. When we started, the only people doing really good work all had top notch pilots, mechanics and designers. Today these skills are becoming less and less necessary to do the job. I remember seeing that first video of DJI’s Ace One GPS and thought, ‘wow, this is really going to change things!’

Another big change is most all early drone companies were all very focused on safety. I think this was because they grew up flying under the AMA safety code and so were conditioned to never fly over people and crowds.

DG: Safety is huge! What do you think about the general public’s current approach to drone safety? Continue reading Meet one of the world’s first aerial cinematographers: Leisa Adkins

5 photos from drones (that were all taken by Drone Girls!)

Here are 5 stellar photos shot on a drone. This post’s theme? All the photos were taken by female pilots. They made some pretty bold images!

1. Bliss Dance

Photo/Stacy Garlington
Photo/Stacy Garlington

This photo by Stacy Garlington  captures an aerial view of “Bliss Dance” a 40ft. tall sculpture by artist Marco Cochran that stands on Treasure Island’s Great Lawn in San Francisco, Ca. Garlington captured this photo from above using her DJI Phantom 2 Vision + drone.

2. Happy in the Air

3. Lightning over Trinity

Photo/Jessika Farrar
Photo/Jessika Farrar

ASGaerial‘s Jessika Farrar got the timing just write on this image of lighting striking in Trinity, Florida.

4. Corte Chica

Photo/Loretta Alkalay
Photo/Loretta Alkalay


This photo was taken by Loretta Alkalay  in the Florida Keys. She claims to be “just a beginner,” but we beg to differ.

5. “My pic of the day!”

Photo/Jessica Culley
Photo/Jessica Culley

Meet Helen Greiner: robot enthusiast, CEO of CyPhy Works and CoFounder of iRobot

Do you have a Roomba roaming around your house? Thank Helen Greiner, cofounder of iRobt and CEO of CyPhy Works. Her list of accolades is seemingly endless. From her bio on CyPhy Works:

She has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in computer science from MIT. She was named by the Kennedy School at Harvard in conjunction with the U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders.  She has also been honored as a Technology Review Magazine “Innovator for the Next Century” and has been awarded theDEMO God Award and DEMO Lifetime Achievement Award. She was named one of the Ernst and Young New England Entrepreneurs of the Year, invited to the World Economic Forum as a Global Leader of Tomorrow and Young Global Leader, and has been inducted in the Women in Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame.

That’s just a snippet of her many awards. We could go on, but we would be going on a long time. Instead, we’ve brought you an interview with one of the most influential people in the drone world, Helen Greiner.

Drone Girl: You’ve said in the past that your love of robots started with R2D2. He was your role model?
Helen Greiner: It’s more of an inspiration or a muse, than a role model.

DG: Who were your role models when you first got into robotics?
HG: I always respected academic role models. At the time they were mostly all men, and that’s changed over time which is great. It was a bit different when I was in school in the 80s and 90s.

DG: Were those role models at MIT?
HG: I went to MIT because I saw a robotics competition on the Discovery Channel called 2.70. It’s now used in high schools across the country. It’s been so successful in inspiring kids to go into STEM.

DG: So you’ve obviously been in the robotics field for a long time. You created the Roomba among other things. But at what point did you decide you were going to go from ground robots to drones?
HG: I did iRobot for 18 years. We built some of the best ground robots. Back in the 90s, we said, “let’s not do drones because it’s a crowded field.” Well of course, now it’s an even more crowded field. But I started thinking about what to do next. I was always jealous of drones because they essentially cheat. There’s all kinds of stuff on the ground that ground robots need to avoid or step over. In the air, there is so much more free space. There are no tables or chairs to run into. Once you get above the tree-level, there is really nothing else there. It’s an ideal space for robots to operate.

DG: But with drones, you have other problems that you don’t have with ground robots. You have to worry about battery life, which currently tops out around 25 minutes to power a flying robot in the air. Though, it seems like you have solved it through the microfilament technology you created.
HG: We’ve certainly solved it for the applications that we are working on. We’ve created the PARC system. You can fly it for weeks at a time.
It is for people that are interested in monitoring their own facility, rather than someone else’s. Another drone we are building is called the Pocket Flyer. It can go a few hundred feet and into tunnels and buildings. Without a cable, you really lose communications when you go into buildings. This solves that problem.

DG: Going back to the “Drone Girl” topic, what has your experience been being a female in the drone industry?
HG: When I was younger, it was a double-edged sword. I would go to meetings and be the only woman there, which some people might take as a negative. But you can use it as a positive. People would remember me and say, “well, that’s the robot lady.” I’ve always felt welcome in the industry.

DG: Your company, CyPhy Works is interesting in that the majority of the leadership on your team is female.
HG: It wasn’t by design. The best qualified candidates happened to be female. As long as companies are looking for the best people, it doesn’t matter, male or female. We don’t go out of our way to hire women. It’s just, these are the people who applied and are the best qualified.

DG: What advice do you have for people, especially young women, getting into robotics? Continue reading Meet Helen Greiner: robot enthusiast, CEO of CyPhy Works and CoFounder of iRobot

Drone’s-eye view: 4 stunning images of the earth in snow

Snow overload? Ready for summer already? Hold off! These snow pictures will make you feel better about the winter weather. The best part? They were all shot with a drone! Here are my top pictures of the week, taken with a drone!

Below is my top pick for Drone Snow photo, taken by DroneFlyer. Check out their website for tons more exceptional photos!

Photo by DroneFlyer

Davis Hunt, owner of ViewPoint Aviation, sent over these pictures he took with his DJI Phantom, flying over Lake Cochituate. See the complete set of his photos on his blog here.

Photo by Davis Hunt, Viewpoint Aviation
Photo by Davis Hunt, Viewpoint Aviation
Photo by Davis Hunt, Viewpoint Aviation

This fantastic photo came from Flickr member LizardOne.

Photo courtesy of LizardOne, Flickr
Photo courtesy of LizardOne, Flickr

Happy flying!

Meet Rhianna Lakin, founder of the Droneharts

This is the first in a series of Q&As with other “Drone Girls” — in other words, incredible women who are doing great things in the world with drones.

Today’s interview is with Rhianna Lakin, found of the Amelia Dronehart RC Copter Group, a closed Facebook group for women interested in drones. You can request to join the group here

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Photo courtesy Amelia Dronehart RC Copter Group

Drone Girl: Why did you start the Amelia Dronehart RC Copter Group?

Rhianna Lakin: I used to work for a DJI dealer; I worked there prior to the launch of the Phantom series, when it was just the S800, flight controllers and Flame Wheel series. When they launched the Phantom, I noticed I had a few female customers. Then I started noticing a few more ladies popping up. I thought, if I have a few customers, then I thought, ‘well gosh there have to be more out there.

DG: What was your intent with the group?

RL: I knew where the drone industry was going to go. I wanted to show a softer side of it because the media would not show the softer side…no matter what you were doing with drones.

DG: So you created an Internet community for women?

RL: My goal was to start the group and bring women together so they could ask questions. I just got really tired of the forums this caveman mentality.

DG: Do you find it hard for a woman interested in, but new to drones, to find a place where she can fit in and ask questions about her drone?

Rhianna Lakin and her daughter at the DJI new pilot training in Seattle. Photo courtesy Rhianna Lakin.

RL: Absolutely. Our women’s group, we don’t have bashing over questions, we don’t have that intimidation factor. It’s more supportive group. I just got really tired of the forums — this caveman mentality. I am still on other forums but certainly, the Droneharts is something different. My goal was to bring women together of all ages and skillets.

DG: How did you get into drones?

RL: I spent the last 14-15 years between here and Asia, specifically Indonesia. While I was there, I experienced several natural disasters. I was there for the 2004 tsunami. I participated in a lot of relief efforts because I speak the language. I was there during a flash flood due to illegal logging which wiped out the village I lived in. I lost a lot of friends. There was a big search and rescue mission to find people under the logs. I knew the people that ran the company out of Portland and I thought, ‘if they could use this for aerial video why can’t they use this for search and rescue?’ Of course, I didn’t realize that was already being done.

DG: Wow, you are super accomplished in what you’ve already been doing with drones, and you’ve been doing it for years.

RL: I use them for good, search and rescue, humanitarian relief, agriculture.

DG: How did you come up with the idea of the name Droneharts?

RL: I realized we could call them anything else, (such as UAVs or UASs) but the media is still going to refer to them as a drones. If I do a search and rescue mission and I call it a drone, then suddenly that sets a positive connotation with the word “drone.”

DG: So what’s in your future?

RL: In May or June I’ll go back to Indonesia and hopefully be able to expose the deforestation and atrocities that are happening there.

DG: And what about the future of the Droneharts?

RL: It’s been so exciting to have all of you ladies jump on board. 2015 is going to be a big deal for those of us in the industry who want to make a difference. There need to be more women out there to bring awareness. My goal is to get exposure for any women that want that exposure and want to make a name for themselves. That’s another goal of mine, to promote the women within the group.

DG: How will you do that?

RL: One of my big goals is my attempt is to have a website built that will have bios of any women that want there bio there and links to all of you. There’s currently only a closed Facebook group for us. My goal is to get bios for all of you that want it and put it on the website so we can get support from outsiders and be noticed for the achievements of what you’re doing. I’m trying to collaborate between all of us, and many of us are doing really great things. Whoever wants to be involved can. A lot of us see this as a new industry. It’s one we can make a name in, make change in.

Are you, or do you know, a stellar Drone Girl I should profile? Contact me here.

New Year’s Resolution: let’s celebrate more women in drones

It’s a problem all too common in the tech world. There is an embarrassingly minuscule number of women in tech.

David Cohen says it’s a pipeline problem, a sentiment echoed by many, often men. As Jon Evans wrote in TechCrunch, “it’s disingenuous to turn a blind eye to the fact that many women who doenter the industry subsequently drop out of it.”

Clearly, the drone industry isn’t any better than the other tech realms.

Let’s just look at the employee makeup at some of the world’s major drone companies, based on bios from company websites.

You get the point. Clearly, the drone industry has a lot of work to do.

So why do women drop out? Maybe it’s because the same guy who successfully landed a drone on a comet wore a shirt covered in bustiered cartoon ladies during media interviews.

Science writer and editor Rose Eveleth summed up why this leads to basically no women in the drone community perfectly.

Of course, a collective of men on the Internet respond to that tweet with not-so-encouraging comments like this.

I’ve seen it too frequently.  I’ve experienced major instances of sexism, but also tiny instances, like someone saying, “you fly really well for a girl!” Is that a compliment, really? Or are you putting down my entire gender for implying that women shouldn’t actually be good pilots? A well-known robotics executive once told me on the way to lunch, “I don’t believe women can be both beautiful and smart.” Really? So which one am I?

If we’re going to get picky here, even the term UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or UAS is a bit sexist, no?

It’s not that all drone companies are suffering from a serious gender diversity problem.

San Francisco-based startup Drone Deploy recently hired Gretchen West, formerly of AUVSI. One of Matternet’s cofounders is a woman, Paola Santana.

And it’s not that there are no successful women in drones. It’s that women aren’t inclined to work in an industry that is sexist. They won’t work in an industry if they don’t have other role models who are like them. They refuse to be objectified, seen as the token woman, and constantly scrutinized for every mishap, question they have or decision they make when operating a drone.

That’s where I’ve proposed a New Year’s Resolution for the drone industry. Let’s support women in drones. To the companies listed above, be conscious of this when hiring or promoting in the new year. To people in the drone industry, be conscious of how you treat a woman, whether she is new and curious about getting into the industry or a better pilot than you.

And as for myself, I need to be better about celebrating women in drones too. That’s why, this year, I’m going to regularly feature Q&As or profiles of women who have done great things for the drone industry.

There are so many badass women in drones. They just need to have a voice. And you’ll hear it here, on The Drone Girl.