It’s February! Let’s celebrate female pilots (this month and every month)

Photo by Sally French, The Drone Girl

Six drone operators met in January in Los Angeles, California to carry out one mission: fly a drone from the landing pad over to a flag, snap a photo, fly over the trees, snap another photo of a different flag, and return to home.

The drones were laid out neatly on a table near by; one of them is labeled Bessie, and the majority of drones are decorated with pink stickers.

The operators include award-winning photographers, journalists and search-and-rescue leaders.

The team is made up of:

Rhianna Lakin, founder of the Amelia Dronehart RC Copter Group. She spent much of the past 15 years in Indonesia where she participated in relief efforts.

Sarah Oneal, cofounder of That Drone Show, a daily video podcast all about drones and creator of International Drone Today, a day in March to gather pilots around the world to fly drones, culminating with the main event in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Isabelle Nyroth, a director at Unmanned Experts, a group made up of experts with over 25,000 flying hours on UAS operations.

Jessika Farrar, a drone pilot and mission analysts with SWARM, a worldwide volunteer search and rescue network of over 1,100 drone pilots. She is also the co-founder of ASG Aerial Filming Services.

Laurie Rubin, an international award-winning wildlife and nature photographer and has had photos displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Sally French, (me!) author of The Drone Girl, a blog dedicated to drones. Her drone photography has been published in news outlets including The Economist, Forbes, the BBC and NPR.

Notice something that’s likely a bit out of the ordinary here? All the operators are women. It’s something of a rarity in the drone realm to have a group solely made up of female pilots, but it’s a continuation of a demographic trend in the tech industry.

That’s why DJI and Facebook group Amelia Droneharts teamed up to declare February as Female Pilots Awareness month.

Women have made an important role in the drone industry, including Marilyn Monroe, who assembled drones during World War II Helen Greiner, who created the Roomba, and Missy Cummings, one of the U.S. Navy’s first female fighter pilots.

Photo by Sally French, The Drone Girl
Photo by Sally French, The Drone Girl

Female Pilots Awareness month will break down the stereotypes and show that there’s no reason why a woman can’t be an excellent drone operator.

Throughout the month, DJI, Droneharts and of course, Drone Girl will showcase the plethora of female pilots through Twitter, Instagram and videos.
One video you should watch for? DJI’s video of those six women carrying out that mission. But the mission wasn’t simply about proving they can fly and snapping photos.
The real mission is proving the world and empowering everyone with the truth that anyone can fly.

Shop burns down after suspected Lipo fire

xQK1NWibx6qEl-2lxBEt0ZM451t6W3jfJzUcjGu5dl8Weeks after a fire broke and swiftly wiped out a 30+ year old San Diego RC Business, owner Jim Bonnardel is still moving forward.

An expert in the RC industry for years, Bonnardel was charging Lipo batteries for his drones to use at an event.

“All of my freshly charged batteries were in a neat little row,” he said. “I was charging them in a ceramic pot that I had been using for years.”

That’s when he went inside his house briefly to get a cup of hot chocolate. As he headed back out, he heard his son yell “Dad, the shop is on fire!”

The fire department was on the scene at about 10:45 p.m. By that time, it had already spread like wildfire.

“When they arrived, on scene, the first thing I let them know was what was up there — batteries and cables,” he said.

The fire department has not determined an official cause, but Bonnardel suspects it was a LiPo fire.

For years, lithium polymer batteries (LiPos) have been known to be 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.

“A battery with little charge will smoke a bit,” Bonnardel said. “A fully charged battery will burst into flames.”

But Bonnardel, having been an RC pilot for 30 years, is among the safest and most cautious of Lipo owners.

“I never expected this to happen,” he said. “I considered myself safe in all my practices.”
He says he suspects he must have charged a battery that already had a full charge. He also said he doesn’t believe it was brand-specific.

“I’m hanging in there,” he said. “It makes you sad when you have to dig through ruble.”

But he is optimistic, using this as an opportunity to educate other drone and RC operators.

“My goal here is I’m just as motivated to get other people to not be complacent and not let their guard down either,” he said.

And Bonnardel is not a novice in the education field. He does non-profit community outreach events involving technology and drones. He participates in SWARM. He holds contests. He works to get young people interested in STEM.

“We’re seeing a huge influx in the demographic of young people getting involved,” he said.

In fact, that’s the very reason he managed to salvage many of his drones. Continue reading Shop burns down after suspected Lipo fire

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