Drone Girls: Interview with 2Drone Gals

Kim & Makayla Wheeler,  a unique Mother/Daughter drone team, are known on Dronestagram as 2Drone Gals. They are talented female dronists, FAA registered, promoting beneficial & safe drone use. They have been into aerial imaging for 3 years. We wanted to know more about their passion for aerial photography and how they see the biggest challenges for female drone photographers.

Tell us something about yourself 

K: I’m fast approaching 50 yrs. old and currently exploring options for a 3rd career.  My first was Aerospace Engineering performing mission analysis on the Atlas rocket program.  Then I “retired” to oversee Makayla’s home education program.  Our family lives on the Space Coast of Florida as my husband works for NASA Kennedy Space Center.

M:
I’m 18 yrs. old and live on the Space Coast of Florida.  I’ve grown up loving the outdoors. I am currently enrolled part-time in college while still pursuing my creative interests as a visual storyteller.

Can you tell us how you got started in aerial photography and why did it appeal to you?

K: While photography has always been a hobby of mine since high school, Makayla was the first to take an interest in aerials as a result of a documentary she was producing on the Florida springs back in 2013.  The appeal for me was because it combined both my aerospace engineering and photography background into one technology.  The drones are super fun to fly and the views are breathtaking!

M: Yes, actually I had a fondness for photography when I was super young and I used to photograph flowers.  I then started horseback riding and while out on the trails, I’d take short videos and pictures and edit them to movie music.  This turned into directing films; however, I still do photography parallel to all this.  I see videography as being almost an outgrowth of photography.

I started in aerials by investing in a DJI Phantom 1 back in May 2013 and it was quite a thrill getting to see familiar things from an aerial perspective.

What type of drones are you using and why?

K: We currently have 4 drones in our fleet:  one DJI Phantom 1 and three 3D Robotics Solo’s.  We don’t use the Phantom much anymore as those early models did not come with gimbal nor FPV.  Currently, we fly the Solo with a GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition or Hero4 Black Edition camera.  The Solo was designed for cinematography with built-in algorithms and smart shots to provide footage that is smooth as butter.  It is also a very safe and reliable drone because of double the CPU power on the two flight controllers, which sets it apart from other drones.

M: We were actually given two of our 3DR Solos by my very generous film mentor.  He didn’t have the time to fly and wanted to see what we could do with them.  The 3rd Solo we were given this summer from 3DR through their sponsorship program.  From there, I just started flying and taking photos/video of anything that interested me.  One of the things I love about the Solo is the appearance of it compared to some of the other drones that are out there.

2Drone Gals and their first time

Do you remember what it was like your first time shooting from the air?

K: My first flight was at a nearby model aircraft flying field where I had fun taking “dronies” (the drone version of “selfies”) from various altitudes and perspectives.  From there, I got braver to the point now I can fly half a mile or more out over the ocean without too much concern.  We fly over water a lot here in Florida!

M: I thought it was incredibly cinematic, like something in a “Lord of the Rings” movie.  That was the real draw for me with regard to flying drones: I wanted cinematic aerial footage.  I see drones as just another tool in my tool chest towards becoming a better cinematographer.

What are your roles in this male dominated environment?

K: My goal for 2Drone Gals is to be recognized as equally competent and talented drone pilots who not only can fly, but edit/produce/direct.  I don’t think we’re there yet just for the simple fact that men feel more comfortable working with other men in this industry, understandably.  The commercial drone industry is still in the early stages and will not move forward without policy development and public perception changing.  Therefore, I have taken a particular interest in becoming a drone ambassador, promoting safe and beneficial drone use, every opportunity.

M:
As women right now in the industry, I see it as being something that has pros and cons.  It is harder to compete in the mail dominated market for standard drone jobs. However, as a result of being a mother/daughter drone team we have been asked to do a lot of unique things because we have a great story.

What are the biggest challenges for female drone photographers?

K: Although we have been flying longer and with an established skill set than many of our male counterparts, it still seems they have an easier time breaking in to the industry.  That can be frustrating at times. 

M: The biggest challenge I think is being taken seriously when you’re in competition with an established drone company who happens to be male-owned.  A lot of people just feel more comfortable with a male behind the sticks.  Proving yourself sometimes is real hard, but it can teach you perseverance as well.

What are your views on the FAA and how they have been dealing with UAVs?

K: Things are moving along with Part 107, but not as fast as the industry would like.  The technology certainly exists to do amazing things.  However, many applications require waivers under Part 107 which are difficult and untimely to acquire.  Enforcement seems to be an issue where pilots are flying irresponsibly, not to mention without proper authority, and getting away with it.  We see this on the local and state level, in particular. 

M: I think it can be frustrating at times because they have dragged their feet and tightened down laws because of some of the irresponsible mistakes made by other drone pilots.  It is nice that they came out with the Part 107 test which attempts to inform drone pilots of basic air traffic laws.

What is the possible drone impact on ecology?

K: The applications for safe and beneficial drones use in this area is endless.  From wildlife monitoring, wetlands surveying, cattle management, to studying dolphins and whales – the list goes on!  But in order for this to be fully realized, old conventions must be discarded as well as policy development and public perception must embrace drone use.

M: I believe that drones have a great future with ecology and conservation.  As part of shooting a promotional video for a preserve the conservation manager asked us if we could fly over a densely- forested area to take pictures looking for invasive plants.  They also are considering drone flights to scan a rocky coastline looking for stranded sea turtles; currently humans conduct these checks on a daily basis. These are just a few of the many ways that drones provide a safer and more non-intrusive surveying and imaging platform.

We saw that many of your pictures come from Florida. Is there any reason why these locations (any project going on)?

K: Florida is our home and offers many unique and beautiful opportunities to capture from a birds eye view!  Makayla has done several specific projects based in Florida including a documentary on the Florida springs and a feature video for a conservation agency.  The Spacecoast, in particular, has many interesting subjects to shoot including rocket launches, mega cruiseships, extreme action sports like kiteboarding and windsurfing, intercoastal islands in the lagoon, airboats racing across the wetlands – all to the backdrop of spectacular Florida sunrises and sunsets. 

M: The main reason is because we live in Florida (haha)!  I can say that while we don’t live in the prettiest part of Florida, living where we do, by the coast, provides a lot of beautiful subjects to capture from an aerial perspective.  I feel my creativity and editing skills have grown tremendously as a result of just driving around town and thinking, for example, “Oh, that sunken boat might look cool in a drone shot!”  It’s also very fun driving past certain places and thinking of the amazing picture that you captured there that everyone loved on social media.  It makes me feel more connected to the place where I live.

What do you like to do when you are not taking photos?

K: I am a perpetual learner and enjoy reading, researching, discovering new things.  To relax, I usually head down to the local Port and watch the cruise ships arrive/depart and go for a walk on the beach.  I enjoy meeting with people in small groups to discuss a topic or work on a project.  I am a manager/organizer/administrator, by nature.

M: It’s hard because no matter whether I’m trying to just hang with my friends or go relax at a natural place, I always feel compelled to take pictures. 

I guess being a photographer is like being a mom in a lot of ways – you’re never really off duty. 

The perfect shot could strike at any time, and it’s the worst feeling when you don’t have a camera.  I’d say I mainly like enjoying the outdoors and hanging with friends, but I still take photographs when I’m doing those things. ­čÖé

What advice or tips would you give others who want to get started flying drones?

K: Purchase an inexpensive micro-drone like the Blade Inductrix to fly indoors.  Fly it everyday for a few months. You will have no problem transitioning to expensive drones, flown outdoors amidst various obstacles and weather conditions.  Once you make this transition, practice flying fully manual (vs. GPS mode) in a large open field in case you have an in-flight malfunction and have to land the drone without the navigational aids.  If you wish to pursue a business, decide on a specialty (creative vs. enterprise) and begin developing an online portfolio.  Use social media to market.

M: Don’t try to put the pressure of making money flying drones when you first start out.  Save up, get a drone, take some pictures of subjects that you like and see if you enjoy the process.  If you do then start moving forward with a business.

Recently you have passed 107 test and are now bonafide commercial #UAS pilots! Congratulations!
How was it like? Any advice to other pilots who want to take the test?

K:  Thank you!  The test was harder than I thought!  But there are plenty of free study resources out there if you have the discipline to create your own study schedule and stick to it. If you have a pilot’s background, then the FAA Remote Pilot – sUAS Study Guide is a good refresher. The FAA online training course/exam for existing pilots is pretty straightforward if you’ve studied the Part 107 Advisory Circular, AC 107-2. If you do not have a pilot’s background, like me, then you should devote more time to familiarizing yourself with the ground school topics especially the Aeronautical Charts and Airport Classifications. In either case, a costly study course is not necessary in my opinion.

How is it to be in the business with drones?

Although we are not as fully integrated into the business to the level we desire from a profitability standpoint. 

We consider it a privilege to be nationally and internationally recognized as women in the drone industry. We look forward to what the future holds!

Thanks so much for your time girls. Looking ahead, what is on the horizon for you? Any interesting projects coming up?

K: I am interested in the enterprise side of the drone industry: surveying, mapping, search & rescue operations, FLIR applications, etc.  Although I enjoy taking pretty pictures from the sky, I believe the drones have so much more to offer.  As such, I am looking to collaborate with others in the industry who may be a bit further along and who have applications here in Florida.  In addition, I am currently pursuing opportunities in drone education for students and policy development on a local level.

M: I’m hoping to continue growing my production company and would like to do this by collaborating with other filmmakers.  I also have an idea for a documentary/short film about the psychological effect of being near or on the water.

  • Eric Hanscom

    Another great interview! Thanks for taking the time and letting us know what you are up to.

  • Emerson Miranda Ph

    Amazing, girls. ­čÖé