Recently, I sat down with Eric Cheng, one of the best-known underwater and drone photographers in the world (just take a look at the image above!) and a member of Skyward’s Advisory Board. I wanted to know what first drew him to drones and advice he has for those who are just starting out. 

Eric’s work as a photographer has been featured at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum and in many media outlets including Wired, Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Make, ABC, Good Morning America, CBS, CNN and others. His video work has been shown on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, and on virtually every news network around the world. Currently, he is at Facebook as Head of Immersive Media.

1. What are your favorite drones and what inspired you to develop an expertise in flying them?

My favorite drone is the DJI Phantom 3 Professional. It’s been nearly a year and a half since it was released, and even though the Phantom 4 is now available, the Phantom 3 is still a fantastic, backpackable aerial-imaging drone. When I need higher-quality aerial imagery, I use the DJI Inspire 1 with Zenmuse X5 and X5R cameras with 12mm and 15mm lenses. Being able to capture raw aerial video in a relatively small package is incredible.

I developed an expertise in flying drones because I wanted to be able to capture new perspectives in my photography. As soon as it became relatively easy to attach a camera to a quadcopter, I was hooked—new possibilities flooded into my mind, and there was no option but to spend a lot of time flying!

2. As a person who has spent his career immersed in technology and media, what do you anticipate will be the most groundbreaking drone applications that consumers will experience in the next five years?

Five years ago, almost no one would have guessed that drones would exist as they do today, and that the ability to capture aerial pictures and video from virtually anywhere in space would be considered normal. In the next five years, I hope that we are able to solve the airspace problem so that manned and unmanned aircraft can operate without fear of conflict. If this happens, then drones will be able to truly operate autonomously, and we’ll be able to unlock some of the things that so far have only been news stories (delivery, for example). In five years, most consumers will probably still not operate a drone themselves, but the effects of ubiquitous, autonomous, sensor-laden drones will surely be felt by everyone on the planet!

3. Follow-up question: What is the coolest thing that drones are doing today?

It’s hard to come up with a single coolest thing that people are doing with drones—there are so many interesting things that are being done! I continue to be super excited by the research that comes out of Raffaello D’Andrea’s research lab at ETH Zürich, and I’m particularly excited by small drones that can do SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping). Giving drones better sensors and increased computing capability will allow them to sense and interpret the 3D environment around them. In addition to increased safety in the form of sense and avoid, this will effectively unlock indoor environments for drones.

4. You’re a highly experienced UAV pilot, but it’s not something you’ve pursued as a profession. We hear from a lot of experienced drone enthusiasts who are looking to turn their expertise into a career, and they often ask us how they should get started. What kind of advice would you give them? What steps would you have taken had you decided to make drones your profession?

Making money from a drone here in the USA is about to become a lot easier. The FAA’s Part 107 drops at the end of this month, which allows drone pilots to become certified for commercial operations without the unwieldy and expensive Section 333 process that earlier pilots were required to go through. The Section 333 process is precisely what made me not pursue being a pilot as (part of) a profession, and if Part 107 had been around a few years ago, my life might be very different right now.

My advice is to spend a lot of time on Skyward’s Part 107 Resources website, and to become certified after August 29. You’ll immediately be able to get started looking for ways to be productive with a drone.

5. We hear a lot of negative press about recreational drone pilots flying irresponsibly (near runways, wildfires, etc.). As an enthusiast, what do you do to ensure that you’re flying safely and responsibly when you’re out flying for fun?

There are obvious things to avoid, like not flying near runways, wildfires, etc., but I don’t think there is any replacement for competence as a pilot. The best thing you can do is to practice flying (in a safe place) until you can do so without thinking. This frees your brain up so you can be situationally-aware and smart when you’re operating a drone.

In this video from Tested: The Show, Eric shares how he flew drones over active volcanoes in Iceland.

Cover image by Eric Cheng.