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Kara's Corner

6 Women in Drones You Might Not Know

March 8, 2017

Updated March 9, 2017

From Amelia Earhart and Sheila Scott, whose ambition shattered barriers for future pilots, to the Night Witches, a daring group of mavericks that really knew how to take down Nazis, women have made a significant impact in the field of aviation. Their contributions have paved the way for modern women to accomplish groundbreaking feats.

In honor of International Women’s Day, I’m celebrating some inspiring ladies revolutionizing another type of aerial vehicle – drones. Names that might instantly pop into your head are Sally French, Rhianna Lakin, Star Simpson, and Gretchen West. While they deserve all the recognition they’ve currently enjoyed, I want to focus on the women in drones you may not have heard as much about.

Here are six inspirational women in drones you might not know.

1) Brooke Waukau, Founder, Women’s Indigenous Media

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Brooke’s inspiration to start working with drones came about in an atypical way. She was arrested last October for sitting in a prayer circle, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. That day, the Morton County Police Department deployed 500 officers from across the country to forcibly remove Water Protectors from unceded treaty land, without jurisdiction.

While being arrested, she noticed a drone pilot flying his aircraft around the site. He was using it to monitor police activity so he could warn activists of their movement ahead of time. Shortly after her release from jail, Brooke was introduced to Myron Dewey ― a seasoned drone pilot dedicated to fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. That’s when she realized that drones were not only vital to the movement but also necessary. “I was hooked from that moment and began to self-educate through trial and error before becoming a full blown drone pilot.”

With a new perspective, they started not only witnessing, but also quickly becoming survivors of, the large number of human rights violations. “The drone footage we captured at Standing Rock became so important and vital to the legal battle, because the footage could potentially keep a Water Protector out of prison to dispel the heinous and unlawful charges being brought against them.”

Brooke is currently in the beginning phases of establishing non-profit status for Women’s Indigenous Media. The organization plans to offer media training for women including filmography, editing, correspondence, and drone operations. “Drones have been so important to this movement because they have opened an avenue to Indigenous people.”

As a result, she believes that we will start seeing stricter laws and regulations regarding drone usage. “They have been the eyes in the sky uncovering things the fossil fuel industry does not want the general public to see.” Yet, Brooke will continue to push boundaries and document illegal behavior because “the general public has a right to be informed.”

2) Carmaine Means, Photojournalist, CBS News

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Carmaine was working at a Chicago-based TV news station in 2013 when a guest came into the studio to talk about the “hot” items in technology. He revealed a DJI Phantom 1 drone. “At the time I remember thinking that this quadcopter could possibly be a game changer in my field of video, film and photography.” Recognizing the long-term potential, she immediately learned how to properly operate and fly drones. “I started reading as many articles as I could, so that I could have a great understanding of something that consequently has become my new passion.”

Today, the TV news industry is exploring new, responsible, and safe ways to incorporate drone footage into stories – particularly involving breaking news situations. Thanks to rapid technological advancements, drones are able to give viewers superior, high-quality photographs and video. “It has the capability of turning a visually boring farm crops story into something compelling, eye popping, and revealing. As a photojournalist, you have the ability to make an impact on your audience using pictures. It is important as an industry that we embrace drones.” From what she has witnessed so far, adoption in the newsroom is making a positive impact.

Besides positive progress in federal law regarding giving remote pilots the ability to operate BVLOS (beyond visual line-of-sight), Carmaine believes in “the economic and educational impact that drones will have on our current and future generations. Currently, it is changing the way kids are being taught STEM in the schools across the U.S.”

3) Mary B. Wohnrade, Principal Engineer, Wohnrade Civil Engineers

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I first learned of Mary, and her team’s work, through a recent post on DroneDeploy’s blog. Reading about the process of surveying Grand Sand Dunes National Park, home to the tallest dunes in North America, was intriguing. She has her 25-year-old son to thank for the introduction to drones.

“He wanted to use a drone to capture aerial imagery of our larger civil engineering projects for marketing purposes. It wasn’t long before we realized the incredible potential of UAVs, and began offering precision mapping services to our clients in June 2015, after receiving or Section 333 Exemption from the FAA.”

It only makes sense to use drones when mapping, especially for economic reasons. “UAS technology offers a much more complete representation of the ground surface, and data collections can be performed in a fraction of the time. Due to the reduced time to collect data in the field, we are able to save our clients roughly 40% on average, as compared to traditional methods.”

The sky really is the limit when it comes to the potential of drone usage. “UAS technology has seemingly endless applications, and the capability to enhance the quality and quantity of data. It also provides a faster and safer means of collecting data in hazardous areas that would threaten human life. Multiple industries stand to benefit from the use of UAVs.”

4) Belinda Kilby, Co-Owner, Elevated Element
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Belinda, who I met last year at a DJI Mavic Pro event, has always been an art nerd. She spent 10 years teaching the subject for Baltimore City Schools. That changed in 2009 when her husband, Terry, put a tiny “gumstick” camera on a store-bought RC helicopter. “As soon as I saw the photos, as terrible and grainy as they were, I immediately got excited about the birds eye perspective that has always been a recurring subject in important art movement of the past.”

The husband-and-wife team behind Elevated Element enjoys working on cinematography projects. What excites them even more, however, is a new set of services they’ve developed called Augmented Aerial Imaging (AAI). It combines animated 3D models with aerial cinematography. This allows clients to place models such as architectural renderings in a real world environment.

Also interesting to note: “This concept is also very effective for recreating or virtually restoring historic structures and archaeological sites.” Overall, AAI will allow their clients to create more effective visualizations whether they’re preserving the past or designing for the future.

Speaking of the future, Belinda credits the emerging autonomous automobile industry for contributing to the navigation and 3D capabilities of UAVs. “Now, sonar sensors are being used in detect-and-avoid navigation, but smaller and more cost effective lidar units will dramatically improve detect and avoid drone tech.” These advancements will enable 3D imaging that far surpasses what we see today.

5) Jacquene Curlee, Founder, Kids Drone Zone

In 2008, Jacquene’s teenage son declared “TV was for dummies,” so they got rid of every last one in their house. Turning to the Internet for engaging content, she stumbled across TED Talks where the topic of drones kept resurfacing. Surely it was a sign. After attending AUVSI’s World Conference in 2009, she hit the road to attend more classes and conventions. This led to writing down every possible career avenue with drones. “Then I asked myself ‘What’s not on that paper?’ I noticed no one was doing anything with kids.”

Since then, Kids Drone Zone (KDZ), has exposed more than 102,000 enthusiasts to drones and has taught roughly 11,300 kids to fly via their outreach program. “Tomorrow’s society will be exponentially technology driven and it’s extremely important that we help scholars prepare for careers yet to be invented.” Looking to expand their global reach, they’ll be hosting an inaugural film festival this Spring. Submissions are currently open for short films and stills.

The factors driving future growth aren’t going to center around drone pilots, but data analytics and software. “As drone technology and equipment advances, so will the use of drones in almost every facet of our society worldwide. This is why KDZ is so passionate about preparing our young minds today for tomorrow’s technology driven world!”

“I truly believe it’s important for women in a plethora of industries to lead the way ― what they see is what they’ll be!” – Jacquene Curlee

6) Jessika Farrar, R/C Pilot and Content Creator, Airhart Aviation

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Long before her inspiration to get involved with drones, four years ago, Jessika was an R/C hobbyist. Since the tender age of six “my favorite toys were always the remote controlled cars and boats. Growing up, me and my father would work on things like R/C airplanes and nitro powered boats. And we would go to the hobby shops and spend time watching the R/C car races. It was always quality fun.”

Her participation in those hobbies set her up with the skill set and knowledge required to dive head first into the depths of the new drone industry. After parting ways with federal government career in 2013, she wanted to find more unique and fulfilling work. Her inspiration came from some YouTube videos of people doing fascinating things with quadcopters. “I had never seen one before, but I certainly recognized all of the components which were making it fly. I immediately realized the potential that these little machines could have…to not only be incredibly fun, but profitable too.”

Recently, Jessika was in charge of production for a line of drones that can fly in dark, constricted spaces such as mines, caves and tunnels. She hand-built the drones and designed prototypes for the company, based in Sweden. “I was the pilot for experimental missions in some active mining environments, where I became the first female drone pilot to fly in an active mine.” Her efforts help minimize the risk miners often encounter in the field. She’s currently looking to get involved with companies that need a highly capable pilot whose knowledgeable in the design, construction, and manufacturing of consumer drones.

Despite her, and others, recent accomplishments, “we have barely scratched the surface of what this technology is capable of. The real future of drones is going to be in infrastructure, and in some really esoteric industries. We will see all kinds of drones, and land-based robots in the near future which will be helping our cities and economies stay alive.”

Special thanks goes out to Rhianna Lakin and her Amelia Dronehart community. I’d also like to extend my deepest gratitude to Sharon Rossmark, who runs Women and Drones, which is currently accepting nominations for women to watch in the UAS industry. This Women in Drones article wouldn’t have happened without their help. Keep slaying.

Correction: In a previous version it said Myron Dewey was working to protect the Dakota Access Pipeline, he is actually working against the pipeline.

Featured image: Carmaine Means 


Kara Murphy is a Part 107-certified remote pilot and writer based in Midwest.Follow her on Instagram for her more artistic aerial imagery, find out how to hire her here.

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Comment On This Article
  • tworoadstwo

    There is a factual error in the article. “Myron Dewey ― a seasoned drone pilot dedicated to protecting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock” should read “Myron Dewey ― a seasoned drone pilot dedicated to protecting the water protectors, as they describe themselves, who seek to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.”

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