Drone Pilot Spotlight: 5 Fliers to Keep Your Eyes On

Drones Drones & Vehicles
Drone Pilot Spotlight: 5 Fliers to Keep Your Eyes On

With UAVS quickly developing into highly capable flying platforms, countless applications for them have appeared spanning entertainment to industry. Each category now has notable pilots pushing their fields even further. We caught up with a few of the standouts to hear how they got started, what they’re flying, and where they’re going next.

Asa Hammond, Niels Joubert, Nathan Schuett, and Zoe Stumbaugh. Photo by Hep Svadja
Asa Hammond, Niels Joubert, Nathan Schuett, and Zoe Stumbaugh. Photography by Hep Svadja

Niels Joubert

Drone researcher, Stanford University
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Many of the functions drones are starting to offer today — such as basic autonomy and obstacle avoidance — had been developed and demonstrated for years in research labs. That practice continues now, with academics around the world designing quadcopter feats like throwing and catching objects, weaving rope bridges, and stacking blocks. Stanford Ph.D. student Niels Joubert is part of this, focusing on reproducing computer-graphic movements in the real world. See his work at njoubert.com.

When did you get into drones?

I started Stanford Computer Graphics’ Quadrotor project in September 2013, along with my colleague Mike Roberts. That was the start of my research foray into drones. Before that, I worked on other mechatronic projects, including the SNAPS Cubesat.

What does your involvement in the drone space mean?

In our research, we almost exclusively fly fully autonomous missions. We’re building new tools and algorithms that use quadrotors purely as a tool for placing sensors in the world without a human in the loop. We’re also exploring ways the drone controls itself, interacting with people in much more fluid and natural ways than a person holding a controller.

In my personal life, I love doing aerial cinematography and casual FPV flying. With the Stanford UAV Club, we have a great time chasing each other, flying very different vehicles!

What’s in your flight case?

• A 3DR Solo with an integrated Swift Navigation RTK GPS
• A Black Pearl FPV monitor
• An RTK-GPS base station: NovAtel GPS antenna, Swift Navigation RTK GPS, and a Ubiquiti Bullet M5 Wi-Fi radio
• A MacBook Pro ground station running MAVProxy and my custom open source experimental flight environment, “Spooky”
• A couple of GoPros and tripods to record the flight from the ground
• A small fold-up table and chair
• A big tarp — sometimes you need to protect against unexpected rain!

Where will drones go next?

I see drones heading in two major directions: swarms of drones working together fully autonomously to perform tasks such as monitoring or package delivery, and drones as personal robots, making it easier for us to capture and share our lives.

Zoe Stumbaugh

FPV Racer

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In the new sport of FPV racing, the best have only been flying for a few years, as the technology is still so young. Zoe Stumbaugh is one of the stars who has emerged, developing new flying techniques and featuring prominently in last summer’s National Drone Racing Championships in Sacramento, California — the first sanctioned national race of its type.

When did you get into drones?

I bought my first “Nano” drone in August of 2014, and started work on my first FPV craft in September of 2014 after watching videos on YouTube. Fell in love with flight on the first battery!

Why do you fly?

I fly for the sheer fun of it — and the thrill of competition. Besides racing I’ve been pioneering “3D” flying, where the machine has the ability to reverse thrust near instantly, allowing for maneuvers that visually defy gravity.

What’s in your flight case?

My backpack is overloaded, it carries four rigs: a Twitch 109 from UniqueFPV for everyday fun and racing, and setups from Hovership Zuul, Atomic Aviation Mercury, and Bullit Drones as my 3D test machines. My Fat Shark HD v2 goggles, Taranis 9XD transmitter, 30 or so batteries. Big-bag-o-props. A 5.8GHz DVR/LCD screen for passengers and a spare set of goggles for giving rides. GoPro and Mobius HD cameras for capturing footage.

Where will drones go next?

Drones will become fully autonomous with sense and avoid technology for most applications, with human input “guiding” things. In the racing scene I’m expecting full HD video out for live broadcast on national television by the end of the year.

Nathan Schuett and Asa Hammond

Co-founders of Prenav.com

Asa Hammond
Nathan Schuett

Industrial inspection is a particular challenge for large structures — especially those that move, like wind turbines. To do a proper inspection, an engineer traditionally would need to ascend the tower with climbing gear in order to get close access to crucial areas. The use of UAVs with high-resolution cameras could eliminate the danger that these inspectors face, but current units do not have the repeatable precision needed to fly to the exact spot reliably. Prenav, co-founded by Nathan Schuett and Asa Hammond, aims to overcome that by tracking their inspection drones inside a point cloud to guide their position within a centimeter of accuracy.

Why do you fly?

Mainly we’re drawn to the tech. We find these tiny aerial robots to be fascinating — especially the challenge of enabling them to fly with autonomy and precision.

What’s in your flight case?

Prenav prototypes (our laser scanning guidance system and drone).

Where will drones go next?

Longer flight times, better imaging capabilities, increased safety and reliability, and more intelligent collision avoidance and automation. Can’t wait!

Nancy Egan

Regulatory expert and 3D Robotics general counsel
NancyEganOver the past year, the FAA has released a much-anticipated set of rules around consumer drone use, including a pilot registration requirement that turned out much easier and agreeable than many anticipated. To make this happen, the agency organized a task force comprising leading drone experts, manufacturers, and vendors, who developed the current directives. Nancy Egan, general counsel for 3D Robotics, was a lead voice on this project, and continues to be engaged with regulators in Washington as the field develops.

What does your involvement in the drone space mean?

One of my primary jobs is to help people at all levels of government understand the technology and the speed of innovation, and help shape regulation and policy that fosters innovation — while keeping us all safe.

Why do you fly?

I fly in Sonoma. I am a casual videographer. Sonoma is absolutely gorgeous. Because of the weather and terrain, you can fly the exact flight plan every day at the exact same time and you get a new kind of gorgeous every time.

What’s in your flight case?

A print out of my FAA registration!

Where will drones go next?

Is it cliché to say the sky is the limit? In the short term we need to make sure we have a legal framework in place in the U.S. to allow people to use the amazing technology we already have.

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Mike Senese

Mike Senese is a content producer with a focus on technology, science, and engineering. He served as Executive Editor of Make: magazine for nearly a decade, and previously was a senior editor at Wired. Mike has also starred in engineering and science shows for Discovery Channel, including Punkin Chunkin, How Stuff Works, and Catch It Keep It.

An avid maker, Mike spends his spare time tinkering with electronics, fixing cars, and attempting to cook the perfect pizza. You might spot him at his local skatepark in the SF Bay Area.

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