My interest in drones came as a result of my love for birds and the desire to photograph them. One of my favorite places is a beautiful lake in Southern California called the Salton Sea. It is an important habitat to over 420 species of birds and part of the Pacific Flyway. On a regular basis I come from my home in Canada to this fantastic location. I typically shoot just before sunset when the light is most alluring. But this particular day I decided to change things up and go earlier than usual. Most of the time I am the only one on the beach. However that day I had company. A man stood on the shore holding a controller, his eyes watching the sky as he flew a white quadcopter above the water. I listened to the whirring sound of the propellers while I walked along the shoreline. As I gazed out at pelicans far off on a sandbar I felt frustrated. I wanted to move closer but I knew my presence would only frighten them. Then to my surprise, I watched as the quadcopter (a DJI Phantom Vision 2) glided high over the birds. Even more intriguing to me was that they seemed unfazed by it. I felt an excitement rush through me. If I had an aerial camera I could get a fresh perspective of everything I loved to photograph. A desire to shoot from a bird's eye point of view was born. From that moment on I knew that I wanted a drone.
Learning to Fly
About a year passed and I kept thinking about the quadcopter at the Salton Sea. The opportunity to fly seemed like a dream just out of my reach. Around this time I had become friends with another Salton Sea aficionado, Eric Hanscom. Eric is an incredibly accomplished person. I could go on all day about the amazing things he has done. But I also discovered that he flew drones quite frequently. He posted many aerial shots from when he and his family visited interesting places. I was constantly in awe of his work. One day Eric asked me if I had ever thought of getting a drone. I was pleasantly surprised by the question. Of course I answered that I had thought about it (little did he know that my obsession with drones had already taken flight). He offered to teach me to fly the next time we were both visiting the Salton Sea. Well, I was absolutely thrilled! Eric is the #1 Top Pilot on Dronestagram. I was stoked to be learning from the best and I truly appreciated his kind offer. I could hardly wait for my next trip to Southern California.
While I eagerly anticipated that opportunity I had a second interesting experience with a quadcopter at the beach. It was a nice summer day on Vancouver Island as I strolled by the ocean. Suddenly, I recognized a familiar buzzing sound in the air above me. When I saw the dronist I walked up to him and asked if it was a Phantom Vision 2 (it was). For a moment he was speechless. His eyes widened as if to say 'she speaks my language'. We had a pleasant chat and he even let me pilot his drone for a few minutes. I already knew that there would be a learning curve and this gave me a little foretaste. I handed the controller back and watched him fly the quadcopter again. This time the Phantom got too close to an abandoned ship just offshore. The vessel's metal construction interrupted the control signal. The drone started its descent toward the ocean. The warning sound was going off and we stood there watching in horror as it got closer and closer to the water. The Phantom was inches away from certain doom when the signal reconnected. The dronist hit the Return to Home button and got it safely back on dry land. We both breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was a valuable and unforgettable experience. It reinforced in me that I wanted to prepare in advance before my trip south. So every time I went to the electronic store, I practiced on a 3DR Solo flight simulator. I was determined to learn how to fly well.
When the day to fly at the Salton Sea finally arrived I was very excited. A group of us drove down to my favorite place on the shore. Huge gusts of wind swirled around us as we stepped out of the car. This was not unusual for the desert but it was certainly less than ideal for piloting a drone. Eric however was confident that the Parrot Bebop could handle the blustery conditions. Within minutes everything was set up and ready for take off. Eric took the drone up first and we all watched as he expertly maneuvered it in flight. The robust little Bebop 1 cruised and hovered defiantly in the turbulent air. Then, the moment I had been dreaming of for nearly 2 years became a reality. It was my turn to fly! I felt elated and apprehensive as Eric handed me the SkyController. It was wonderful to feel the drone respond to my fingers on the joystick. But as the wild wind lashed, it stung my eyes and whipped my hair across my face. The glare from the sun made it almost impossible to see the screen on the SkyController. As unfavorable as the conditions were I focused intently on the drone. I really enjoyed the Bebop's sturdy design and reliability. I moved it up and down the shoreline of the Salton Sea and took my very first dronie. Despite all the challenges I truly loved flying the Bebop.
I enjoyed my first flight lesson and wasn't ready for it to end. To my delight, I was invited to join them on a research trip further down the coastline. Eric would be flying his Bebop 2 over a habitat restoration project in the early stages of development. I'm very passionate about the Salton Sea and believe it is a place of ecological importance. Eric and his family devote a tremendous amount of time to helping the Salton Sea. I was very excited about drones being used to help California's largest lake. While Eric was getting aerial footage the rest of us explored the area. The weather conditions at this location were much more favorable. So when Eric walked over and handed me the SkyController again, I was a little more at ease and absolutely overjoyed. It felt wonderful to pilot the Bebop 2 in the wide open desert sky. I had a greater comfort level with this flight and I became hooked on flying drones.
The Salton Sea and its surrounding area is the perfect place for aerial photography. There is so much diversity in its scenic beauty. On our drive back we stopped at an expansive field of flowers in an agricultural area. We all got out to enjoy this treat for the senses. It was a fragrant pattern of rows and rows of flowers. From the air it was just stunning. After Eric got some footage, he gave me the SkyController and I accepted it eagerly. Each time I flew the drone it became more and more exciting. I also felt myself making progress. I was focusing less on watching the drone in the sky and more on the view on the controller. I wanted to capture the bursts of color and symmetry. As a first time dronist I felt very comfortable flying the Bebop 1 and 2. When we got back, Eric gave me a copy of the footage and I was over the moon. I didn't know when I would get to fly again and it made me happy to have a memento of this amazing day.
A couple of weeks later, our friend and fellow Salton Sea advocate Randy Brown, invited us on a jeep tour. It was an event to raise public awareness for California's largest lake. Randy and our friends organized a group of about 70 jeeps and trucks to spell out "SOS" (Save Our Sea) on the beach. It was the perfect opportunity for Eric and Randy to get aerial footage with their drones. I remember peering over at the SkyController while Eric was flying the Bebop 2. It was an impressive sight to see the huge SOS on the shoreline. Eric and Randy's footage from the jeep tour was published in the newspaper and all over social media. I believe it is important to use photography to communicate environmental issues. As the Salton Sea dries up, habitat is lost and dust storms increase. Thanks to drones we can bring attention to the Salton Sea like never before. This event helped to educate a large number of people and I felt happy to be part of history in the making.
I have to say that I'm inspired by Eric and Randy. They are amazing dronists who use their skills for worthy causes. I am thankful for the opportunities I have been given to fly. While I still have a ways to go, it is my goal to keep progressing. My obsession with drones has also rubbed off on my husband. Just recently he bought himself a small drone and is addicted to flying too. Eric has signed me up to help out at another restoration project at the Salton Sea and I'm very excited. It is truly rewarding to be involved in using drones to help preserve this beautiful lake that the pelicans call home.