#1 Top Pilot Interview – Eric Hanscom
Eric Hanscom is 57 years old and lives in Carlsbad, California with his wife and 8-year old son Martin, who is also a dronist. He is a patent and trademark attorney at InterContinental IP whenever he’s not flying his drone. He owns a small resort in Thailand (Thai-West Resort) and he gets over there a few times a year to fly. Whenever he travels on business, he always try to bring along his drone.
When did your passion for the drones begin ?
My wife and I have a couple of investment properties in Thailand and the California desert, and I was looking for a new angle in advertising. I saw some early drone footage of some surfers and realized that I could do the same things for our properties, so within 10 minutes I had researched the drones that were available at the time and ordered one on Amazon.com. I learned flying the hard way (before there were great YouTube videos that explained things), so after breaking a few props, I was halfway decent at keeping the drone out of the trees and the pictures and videos I took were really a boost for our rentals. More importantly though, I became completely addicted to flying, and, like my earlier career as a “professional” kayaker (I didn’t exactly make a bunch of money doing that), the risker the run, the more it made the adrenaline flow. So, I quickly began looking back through my life at places I have visited, but only after getting my first drone, realized that I really hadn’t seen these places or experienced them the way I wanted to.
2) What kind of drone do you have for the moment?
Ha ha ha. I have (I think) 15 or so drones. I fly a DJI Phantom 2 Vision + for shooting scenery, particularly when I want to fly directly over the subject. I have an older Phantom 2 Vision that I use for practicing. I use a Parrrot Bebop for my riskier flying as it can really take a beating and keep flying. I also use the Bebop for flying near the mud volcanoes near the Salton Sea, as it allows me to get right on top of the belching volcanoes and the low profile decreases the chances that a flying mud splat will take it down. I also have a few Hubsans for flying around the house, and a few of these mini drones which I can’t seem to keep in the air very long. I know I should sell my old drones, but every one has so many great memories, I can’t bring myself to do it, so I expect I’ll end up with a drone museum sooner or later.
Which drone innovation-related topics are of greatest interest to you?
Being a patent attorney, I am interested in all the technological innovations currently outpacing the patent systems of the world. I have my own patent filed for a propeller design I came up with, and I just invented a drone tie-clip that you can see on Drone Zone. I have a number of clients in the drone world, so I can’t really hint what they are covering, but suffice to say I work with some very creative and intelligent people. To me, the keys to the future of drones are 1) safety, sense and avoid technology, return to home, 2) how good of a camera can the drone get up into the air, and for how long?
If you are an inventor and have some time, I would suggest a few areas:
1. Software programming for sense and avoid, return to home, flight paths, etc. I know this software is out there, but it can always be improved. I think there is also a need for software that allows drones to fly with a variety of controllers. For me sometimes I prefer one drone, but another controller, for a particular situation.
2. Propeller design. These need to become more efficient and quieter.
3. Battery design. These need to become lighter, produce more power, and be able to handle more recharges before they are shot. I also see a need for battery adapters that would allow you to use a battery from Drone A on Drone B. Battery health monitors could also be improved; I’m really tired of going from “14 minutes left” to “Critical Battery Failure” in 15 seconds.
4. Solar Technology. I know there is solar technology that is powerful enough to help keep a drone in the air longer, but it is very expensive. Once this price comes down, it may be feasible to put solar panels on the tops of drones.
5. Glare Screens. I have yet to see the perfect solution for glare on the cell phone, iPad or whatever else I’m using.
6. Airport kiosks with drone battery rental. One of my major hassles traveling is hauling my drone in a backpack. I have to carry the drone as carry-on luggage, because I can’t pack the lithium batteries in checked luggage, and I’ve had a number of cases in foreign security where it was really handy to show them the drone and how the battery fit it. Just recently I was detained in Japan until I showed them how it worked (I didn’t fly it in the airport, snicker snicker, but just put the battery in and showed them where the props went). The problem is that now I have a drone (and my 8 batteries) on my back and I’d much rather have it inside a nice, padded drone suitcase. So, why not set up kiosks at foreign airports where you just rent some batteries for your trip, then return them when you leave?
What are your favorite flight areas?
Ah, do you have a few hours to listen? My favorites places to fly are the temples of Thailand and the clear waters around the islands in Southern Thailand. The temples have such strong colors in their roofs that they are fun to shoot in all sorts of light, and the intricate artwork that goes into their construction is really fun to see close up. When I’m with my family at Thai-West, I love taking longtail boats all around the Andaman Sea and flying drones off the boats. It makes for some pretty scary takeoffs, and all landings are hand-grabs, but the longtail allows me to get right up next to the islands, reefs, etc. I also really enjoy flying around the California desert, particularly Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea. Drones give you such an amazing perspective on the desert, and one of my favorite flights is to get a drone a foot or two off boiling mud volcanoes near the Salton Sea, then slow-mo the footage of the volcanoes spewing hot mud into the air.
What image do the people from California have of drones?
It’s a real mixed bag here in California, then again you are dealing with a state that has produced both Silicon Valley and reality TV. We have lots of technologically savvy people who immediate grasp the current, and more importantly, future benefits that drones can bring to society. Then you have less “aware” people who focus on one potentially negative aspect of drones and it becomes their mantra. “Drones can carry terrorist bombs” (as though the RC planes and helicopters that have been around for decades can’t?).
It doesn’t help that the news media focuses 99% of their drone coverage on dridiots (drone-flying idiots) who do really dumb things like crash drones on the White House lawn, and on celebrities who have no idea about how to fly (or handle) a drone, and have a bad experience. For example, last year I made a video called “The Ladder Side of Drones” on using drones to do rooftop inspections for the Buddhist monks in Thailand. Thai temples have very steeply pitched roofs, so the monks normally have to climb up these rickety old ladders and look over each section of roof. I don’t know how many “monk days” my drone saved them, but there were happy that after 6 batteries, they could see on a laptop every section of every building in their temple – and none had to risk their lives climbing up ladders. Anyway, I’m not saying this to try to claim to be the Mother Theresa of dronists, or anything like that, but it was a positive use of a drone. We put out a press release and not a single news station picked up “The Ladder Side of Drones”, but Enrique Iglesias tries to air-grab an Inspire and cuts his hand, and it’s international news for a week.
I also cringe whenever I see a news reporter try to fly a drone live in the studio “to see how they work”. Drones have a learning curve, kind of like surfing. You don’t just grab a 6′ 0” potato chip surfboard and paddle out at Pipeline for your first surf lesson – but at least the news reporters who “try surfing” as part of a TV episode do so under safe “beginner” conditions, usually being guided and supervised by a qualified surfing instructor. You don’t just pull a Phantom out of the Amazon.com box and fire it up for the first time in front of a live studio audience, particularly when you have never flown before. Yes, it will crash, and yes, you will give the clear impression to everyone watching your show that drones are difficult and dangerous, because in your hands, they are. Why not get some training and shoot your segment outdoors? Seriously, just about every dronist I know would be glad to offer free training to anyone in the media who has the chance to showing that drones can be safe, useful and fun.
What are the rules to follow in your country and what do you think? Here in the US we are in the process of having some “future rules” being discussed by the FAA (the federal governmental body that at least right now appears to have authority over drones). I don’t want to bore anyone to tears, and there are other attorneys out there who are way more involved than I am in the regulatory issues, but suffice to say that sometime in the next year, or two, or . . . , we are going to get new rules that relate to drones. As the proposed rules exist now, it appears that we will have to stay below 500 feet (a “raise” from our current 400 feet), respect airport airspace with a 5 mile radius, don’t fly at night, must be 17 or older to drone on and on, have to pass some sort of proficiency test, and don’t be reckless. This is a very brief summary of the entire document (I read it and it was almost 200 pages).
I think first off that we need strong federal rules on drones. Can you imagine the confusion if each city made its own drone rules? That is already beginning to happen, and we need the FAA to head that off. I am also in favor of some sort of proficiency test (and training), and would favor a “drone license” if for no other purpose that allowing dridiots to lose their drone licenses when they do stupid things with their drones. The 17 year old rule is not very popular around my household, as I have a son in first grade who just tied for 3rd across the city in an art competition in which he flew his drone, recorded some video, and edited a 5 minute video of his drone flying over mud volcanoes. Personally, he flies much better than many adults I’ve seen, and he uses better judgment as well. The 5-mile radius around an airport is not realistic, and should be more of an ellipse. You start drawing 5-mile radii around every airport and you have very few places you can fly.
FAA also needs to straighten out exactly what needs to happen when a dronist contacts Air Traffic Control about flying near an airport. According to my reading of the requirements, the dronist has to notify ATC. So, I was flying near an airport and notified ATC that I would be flying, and asked him for guidance. He then responded that FAA directives gave him the authority to approve or not approve my request. We didn’t get off to a very good start, but then both of us decided to stop posturing and start talking sense. We ended up getting along just fine: he asked me to keep below 200 feet and give him my cell phone number if he needed me to get out of the sky for any reason, and then call him when I was finished flying. Everything went fine, but had either of us decided to be difficult, it could have been an ugly situation.
In your opinion, what are the top three skills you need to be a good pilot?
1. Education. If you don’t know how to fly it, things will end badly. If you are in a safe area, you may lose your drone. If you are in a congested area, a lost drone could be the best outcome; you could end up hurting people, destroying property, and giving drones a bad name. A good dronist is always trying to stay on top of the best technology available, and, if possible in his or her profession, trying to advance drone technology. We all should be willing to accept an obligation to become drone ambassadors (sorry Parrot for borrowing your phrase). Droning is at a very exciting time and each one of us truly has the personal ability to make or break the public perception of drones and dronists.
2. Practice. As I said earlier, flying has a learning curve, and once you get the hang of controlling your drone, there are many different flying maneuvers combined with camera adjustments that you will have to make if you want to get good photos and videos. For example, I do a lot of my flying in Thailand off very tippy longtail boats, so I have to be adept at both fast launches where I get the drone up at least 10′ and at the same time make sure it moves away from me and the boat. I also have to air-grab my drone for landings, because it won’t land well on a pitching boat. To prepare for these conditions, I have practiced well over 1,000 times on land, under intentionally difficult conditions (like doing air grabs wearing only one shoe), so that when I need to get job done on a 15′ longtail boat in rough seas, I am prepared rather than trying it for the first time.
3. Judgment. When I was a kid, we didn’t have on-demand TV or YouTube, so the TV highlight of my week was the Wide World of Sports, and I would watch that no matter what was on. One episode was an extreme high dive competition, where these guys would climb up a ladder a hundred feet or so above a pool and dive in. It looked completely crazy to me, as they were doing somersaults and other maneuvers on their way down – mis-time your entry and that would have been one heck of a belly flop. Anyway, during the competition one of the competitors climbed up the ladder, tested the wind, and decided to climb back down rather than dive in wind conditions he thought were unsafe. The audience and other competitors cheered him on, and the announcer said that it takes a lot more courage to climb back down than to jump and hope for the best. That show left a lasting impact on me, and I always try to remember that sometimes NOT flying in difficult conditions is the better choice to make.
What movie or photo are you the most proud of?
I have two. The first is a shot I took from the top of the Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi, Thailand. The hike to the top is really brutal. First, it is 1,178 steps. Really tall steps, pretty much straight up. Second, it is about 90 degrees, and 95 percent relative humidity, so it really saps your energy. Third, and perhaps most dangerous, you have to pass through several gangs of monkeys who are not afraid of people and will steal your water, food, camera, etc. So, just getting to the top is a real ordeal. Then, once you get there, you have to contend with four separate cell phone and radio antennas, and if you lose control of your drone, it’s 1,000 feet straight down on all sides with 10 miles of rain forest in all directions – basically, you lose control and you lose your drone. I waited until the day before I was going to leave Thailand to fly this temple, as I knew I could lose my drone. I popped in a new memory card so I didn’t lose any of my previous footage, and off the drone went. I took it about 100′ out from the temple and one of my first shots was basically a dronie of me and the temple in the background, but the colors were perfect. The drone took off a couple of times, but both times I was able to reel it back in. I got two batteries’ worth of footage before I chickened out and decided not to push fate.
My second favorite shot is some video I shot of the Salton Sea mud volcanoes. To get to these, you have to drive down a sometimes nasty 4WD road a couple of miles out onto recently exposed lake bed. As the Salton Sea has receded, new areas of mud volcanoes have been exposed, and these “new” mud volcanoes are the most spectacular. I have flow both my Bebop and my Phantom right over the erupting volcanoes, and captured some really nice video of the mud being spat up in the air. I slow the video down so you can see the arcs that each boiling mud particle makes. This video has never really attracted any attention, but to me to epitomizes what my drone ideal is: taking a calculated risk to get a shot you will remember forever.
What areas of the world would you like to explore with your drone in the future?
Well, I’m writing you from Hong Kong, where I am hoping to fly a few places (although I got rained-out today), then over into China for a few days. For the future, my wish list would have to include Lake Pehoe in Southern Chile, the Rhine River, Iceland and Norway, the five skeletal fingers of Ireland, the Nazca Lines in Peru, and the old, wrecked whaling ships beached at South Georgia Island. I’d love to get to Mars and perhaps in the lighter atmosphere take a drone all the way from sea level (or whatever they call it on sea-less Mars) up to the top of Olympus Mons (this beast is nearly 70,000 feet in elevation, as compared with under 30,000 for Mt. Everest).
Any particular anecdote you may wish to share with us?
I was pushing my luck flying with some pretty old batteries over the mud volcanoes when I got the dreaded “battery critical failure” message right after my cell phone said I had 14 minutes left. I was at the long end of a run over the mud volcanoes and the drone dropped low and I lost it in the steam coming off the hot mud. I tried to get it up high enough to get a visual on it but it began to “return to home”. I completely lost control and had not idea where it was but I began walking to where I thought it was. About 30 seconds later I saw it trying valiantly to return to home, but obviously didn’t have the battery juice to make it. I thought it was going to crash right into a huge steaming pool of mud, but it just barely made it to the edge, and landed with about 18 inches to spare away from certain death. I now retire old batteries.
Thank you Eric.