Meet Zoe, the world’s top female drone pilot

In Zoe Stumbaugh’s world, it’s drones pretty much 24/7. Even when she’s not racing (she is the U.S.’s top female drone racer, after all), she’s designing new propellers, working on her own racing drone, or flying for fun near her home in Santa Cruz, California.

After being bedridden in her early 20s, Zoe found a hobby — racing drones. Since then, it ballooned into her winning the first ever sanctioned FPV (First Person View) race in the U.S., and she is now working on 3D Freestyle flying. Plus, she developed the world’s smallest competition-level FPV Racing Drone, the Zat 109.

I had the joy of flying with Zoe in San Jose, where she taught me what goes into FPV racing, building drones and what’s new in drone racing.

Learning to FPV from grand master @zoefpv

A photo posted by Sally French (@sallyannfrench) on Mar 31, 2016 at 6:18pm PDT

Drone Girl: How did you get into FPV?

Zoe Stumbaugh: I was really, really sick. I had to go through a lot of different surgeries. I was bound to my bed for a good 2 years. I was depressed. My friend told me, ‘You need a new hobby.’ I went to the hobby shop. I found a micro drone. Then I got a larger one. I saw videos of people flying FPV on YouTube, and thought, ‘I need to do that.’

It took me 2-3 months from hearing about it to flying FPV, because I had to build it myself. I never soldered anything in my life. I had to teach myself to do that.

Then I started winning races.

DG: How would you describe FPV to someone who has never done it before?

ZS: FPV is like having an out of body experience that you get to control. I liken it to being a monk where you can have an elevated experience and get to leave your body.

DG: What’s exciting about it?

ZS: When you get good at it, you can go where you want to go, see what you want to see. It just changes your perception of the world.

DG: Well, speaking of changing that perception, motion sickness is real in the FPV world. I certainly felt it!

ZS: If you’re prone to motion sickness, you’re going to have to get used to it. That being said, I was a major sufferer of car sickness, and now I’ve gotten over it. It’s difficult. It’s definitely not for everybody.

DG: You’re famous in the racing community. What is drone racing like?

ZS: The races are always stressful. You have pilots constantly moving around you, and you have to be aware of what’s going on. Lately I’ve shied away tom racing in favor of freestyle.

DG: What’s freestyle like?

ZS: I like to think of it as being a ballerina in the air. You are quite literally dancing in the air with your drone. You are doing tricks in the air over trees and objects.  With racing, it’s just going around a track and the fastest drone wins. With freestyle, every pilot has their own signature style.

DG: So if I was watching your drone, what styles should I look for to know it’s you?

ZS: I’ve started to master inverted FPV. You sort of have to just see it.

DG: Let’s show you flying it then right here!

DG: The racing world, like many other aspects of drones, is mostly guys. What is it like going to a race and being one of a few women?

ZS: It’s definitely lonely. But the cool part is there has been a big push of women moving into the racing scene. There’s FPVFlyGirl, Drone Doll, Angela Jacques, and KittyCopter.  There’s definitely been an uptick, but when I started there was nobody else.

DG: How do we change that and get more women into it?

ZS: Get drones into their hands.You just have to let them try it. There are biases where teachers will give more fly time to guys than girls. You need to get these machines into the hands of girls.

DG: So what gear are you using?

ZS: My gear is pretty standard. I am sponsored partially by FatShark so they provide me with the Fatshark Dominator HD V2 Goggles.  They are the best goggles on the market.

For my transmitter, I use the Taranis. If there’s one thing you invest in, it’s a good quality control. Having a good transmitter is what makes the difference.

DG: And then you’re designing your own drone?

ZS: It’s the world’s smallest racing drone. We just had a GoPro mount made for it. It’s just over 6 inches in diameter. It goes about 50 mph. It’s nearly indestructible. It’s made of a flexible rubber so when it crashes into stuff it bounces off of it instead of breaking. It’s basically a flying GoPro. It’s currently the world’s smallest racing drone that we know of.

DG: And since it’s so small, you don’t have to register it.

ZS: Yes, and it’s still as fast as much larger machines.

DG: Drone racing has just exploded in popularity lately, especially after the announcement that ESPN would air drone racing. What do you think when you see all this?

ZS: It’s ultimately good for drone racing. I’m worried about anything that is a boom or bust. A lot of money is being spent on drone racing right now. DRL raised $8 million.  I see more and more money getting poured into it, and a lot of TV projects are trying to bring drone racing to the mainstream. It will be an interesting climate to see how that develops. It is either going to work and become a popular sport that people will invest their time in to watch, or it’s a thing that a bunch of nerds will get together to watch on the weekends.

DG: So which do you think it will it be?

ZS: There is a chance it will become popular for the mainstream. There are cameras on these machines and they fly around like superman. It’s a bright future ahead of drone racing.

DG: What’s the next big thing in drone racing?

ZS: We’re going to start to see the ‘rockstar pilots.’ Even the rockstar pilots are pretty niche right now, but that could change now that drone racing continues to grow.

DG: What are your personal goals?

ZS: To become a rockstar pilot! My goal is to find sponsorships. I’m a  good pilot and sponsors should get behind me.

DG: You ARE a rockstar pilot? Okay, so what are you working on now?

ZS: I’m developing out the Twitch 109. I’m working on a motor design. There could be a Zoe edition motor. I’m also working on a propeller design. I actually need a propeller that performs differently than other propellers on the market.

DG: And how much time do you have between there to fly?

ZS: I fly probably every other day. Luckily, in Santa Cruz flying is legal. I fly by my house often at Lighthouse Field. I also fly in parking garages.

DG: Do people approach you when you’re flying out in public?

ZS: It’s fairly routine that people approach me. 99% of the time the reaction is great. When you put the goggles on someone’s face and they see what I see, their minds melt. They want to know how to fly one themselves

DG: And then, what do you do when you aren’t working with drones?

ZS: I play a lot of video games. I used to paint miniatures. I play Magic the Gathering. Ride motorcycles. But honestly, my brain has pretty much been replaced with drones at this point in time.

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