I believe I can fly: meet the women drone pilots

From environmental campaigners and camera operators, to photojournalists and CEOs, women drone pilots are increasingly reaching for the skies when it comes to forging successful careers in a male-dominated sector.

From environmental campaigners and camera operators, to photojournalists and CEOs, women drone pilots are increasingly reaching for the skies when it comes to forging successful careers in a male-dominated sector

Nisha, from above: image by Carys Kaiser, drone photographer.
 Nisha, from above: image by Carys Kaiser, drone photographer. Photograph: Carys Kaiser

What can be achieved with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is evolving on a daily basis – from photography to ecology, humanitarian relief to surveying – but, despite technological developments, the industry itself looks a little like the past.

While the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) doesn’t keep track of the gender of those applying for permission to carry out commercial drone operations, a quick look at the industry as a whole tells you all you need to know. In March 2017, only 3% of airline pilots worldwide were women, in the UK the figure was just 6%. Speak to anyone within the drone sector and they’ll tell you, when it comes to drone piloting, there’s little evidence to suggest such gender-based disparities don’t prevail.

That said, Rusta – one of the UK’s bigger drone-pilot training companies – has reported a “sharp rise” in the number of women enrolling on its course. And in science and tech industries more broadly, there are also signs of progress: 2017 saw 61,430 more women working in core areas than in the year before.

The world of drones might still feel futuristic, but with technology developing rapidly, it won’t be long until applications for UAVs are found in many aspects of our lives. We meet some of the women at the cutting edge of the industry, helping other women take flight.

Ellie Mackay: ‘Those who’d seen Earth from above had shared experiences: a sense of awe, humbled, and a desire to protect the planet’

Filmmaker Ellie Mackay uses drones to document the natural world.
 Film-maker Ellie Mackay uses drones to document the natural world. Photograph: Ellie Mackay

Back in 2014, I was making a feature-length documentary about the palm oil industry in Borneo. I realised it would be impossible to do so without giving a true sense of scale for accuracy. A helicopter was prohibitively expensive, so I got practising and got myself a licence to fly drones.

I’ve always been interested in conservation, but shooting in Borneo with UAVs taught me how powerful a tool the drone is for environmental messages. It’s the overvieweffect. A PhD researcher found astronauts who’d seen Earth from above had shared experiences: a sense of awe, humbled, and a desire to protect the planet. Drone imagery allows us to achieve that for environmental causes. I use the technology with The Plastic Tide, too – we detect plastics along coastlines, using drones and algorithms – allowing us to make the case for action to corporations and legislators in a way that anecdotal evidence can’t be used.

The reason for the lack of women in our industry is the same as the situation with Stem jobs more broadly. Physics and maths were (wrongly) seen as subjects for boys; search drone pilot online and the images are all of men. I have to justify my rate at times when I know men wouldn’t. I spend time encouraging other young women to fly, because my gender makes no difference to my abilities. In fact, some people see it as a novelty. “Oh, you’re a woman”, someone will say and I reply: “Yes, well done.” Ellie Mackay

Gemma Alcock: ‘I was able to combine my two passions: technology and saving lives’

Gemma Alcock who uses drones for search and rescue.
 Gemma Alcock who uses drones for search and rescue. Photograph: Ian Alcock

I basically stumbled into the world of drone technology. It was during my final year studying design business management at Bournemouth University. Having volunteered as a lifeguard, and then in flood response, I was able to combine my two passions when working with the RNLI on my final project: technology and saving lives. Now I’m the CEO of my company, SkyBound Rescuer, researching and consulting on how emergency services can best use drones.

Drones in search and rescue have two functions. We can clear wide areas using cameras exactly as a helicopter does, but rather than waiting for a helicopter to be deployed you can be in the air instantly. The other use is situational awareness: say during a flood, you can’t rely on Google Maps, drones allow us to safely get a sense of the lay of the land. Being young and a woman makes me a double minority, and the industries I’m working in – emergency services, drones and startups – are all dominated by men. But experience isn’t always what matters most, age and gender don’t necessarily reflect ability, especially when technology is rapidly developing. Gemma Alcock

Carys Kaiser: ‘I often wonder why there aren’t more women around. Men had remote-control cars and played video games growing up – girls weren’t offered the same opportunities’

Carys Kaiser, founder of TheDroneLass pictured holding her drones.
 Carys Kaiser, founder of TheDroneLass, pictured holding her drones. Photograph: Joolze Dymond

There were only three or four drone training companies when I decided to take the course. I was working at the BBC back then, and was excited by the possibilities for UAVs, as a film-maker. I emailed and phoned each course provider. They weren’t cheap, and this was before many people were using the technology. Only one place got back to me. I couldn’t help but think maybe – because I’m a woman – I wasn’t being taken seriously.

I did the course anyway, and invested in equipment. Now I shoot with drones for documentaries, we get to capture new perspectives of places that would otherwise be impossible, whether a derelict building, a glacier or dangerous terrain.

I often wonder why there aren’t more women around. Men had remote-control cars and played video games growing up – girls weren’t offered the same opportunities. The online forums – dominated by older men – can be a turn off: I saw a woman ask what could be seen as a novice question, and a load of men were very dismissive and patronising. We never heard from her again.

That’s why I started, with others, a women’s drone Facebook group – a space to support each other, share tips and build a community to encourage others. I run a blog called TheDroneLass – men didn’t seem to want to share their experience, so I put what I learn online for all to see. Money was always a barrier: women are paid less and have children, but courses and technology are becoming cheaper now. As that continues, hopefully more women will able to say yes, and start to fly. Carys Kaiser

Gail Orenstein: ‘I use drones to work with humanitarian relief. I fly over refugee camps to show the conditions women are forced to survive in’

Gail Orenstein, photojournalist who uses drones to access difficult areas such as refugee camps and conflict zones.
 Gail Orenstein, a photojournalist, uses drones to access difficult areas such as refugee camps and conflict zones. Photograph: Gail Orenstein

I’d already been a photojournalist for 25 years when I discovered drone technology three years ago. After returning from Kobani in Syria I saw aerial footage and decided I needed to get onboard or else I’d be left out. I was the first civilian pilot to fly a drone in Kurdistan; I was the only woman whose drone was in the air during the fall of Mosul. In a post-truth world, this is what news gatherers need: it’s undeniable evidence. You can’t shout “fake news” at my footage of tens of thousands of Rohingya crossing the Bay of Bengal.

On the frontline, I also use drones to work with humanitarian relief. I fly over refugee camps to show the conditions women are forced to survive in – two toilets and 2,000 women? Where are these women going to change during their monthly cycle? This technology will save lives, we’re just at the tip of it.

As women, we can’t lose out on this technology. We can’t lose out on the female perspective. I’m worried, because right now the UAV industry is dominated by big agriculture, the military and big industry. It’s dominated by men, and that can be offputting. It’s also a matter of visibility: when I’m walking around with a drone and all my kit, I look like an alien. There need to be more pictures of us doing it online so other women can see us doing so with pride.

It’s really important we get together – like Amelia Earhart when she founded the Ninety-Nines – and build up and get funding, so that we can decide as women how this technology is used. Boys are trained on Nintendos, girls are trained on Barbie dolls. For women to have a shot in this field, that really has to change. Gail Orenstein