Taking to the skies with Sally French 'The Drone Girl'
Back in eighth grade, Sally French volunteered to serve as an editor for the student newspaper. She may have been partially motivated by the chance to earn extra credit, but when the year was up, she knew she wanted to be a writer. Eventually, she went on to major in journalism at the University of Missouri. It was there that a bit of kismet came into play. She needed one credit to graduate, and the only class that fit her schedule happened to be a class about drones. Although French wouldn’t have considered herself mathematically inclined, she’d always loved technology. Her older sister is a software engineer, and her sister’s love of technology definitely transferred to her. She signed up and fell in love.
As she went off into the real world, she began to think about blogging. Her journalism professors had encouraged her to blog about something she was passionate about—they felt it was the best way to practice writing about something on a regular basis. This is when French started blogging about drones on a site she called DroneGirl. She didn’t expect it to become popular, but it did.
French had hit upon a big, wide-open niche—the new drone space. It turns out that the field was full of people from all walks of life. “Since working in drones is so new, everyone has all sorts of stories,” she says. “There is no one college to go to in order to get a job in drones, and there is no one field to study to get a job either. Some of the most successful people I know in drones studied art, architecture, marketing, political science, or didn’t go to college.”
French has managed to do something that is very hard to achieve— turn her blog into a full-time job. It can be difficult, since there are lots of tedious aspects—expenses and tax forms, for example—but at the end of the day, she learns all she can about drones and passes that information along to the public. She reads constantly—reports from scientists, articles from other journalists, and social media sites “to find out what people are actually talking about.”
She writes a lot, of course, but she also shoots videos and takes photos for the more visual stories, updates her social networks, and responds to comments. Then there are all of the meetings and events. She meets with companies to learn what’s new, performs consulting work, travels, and gets to meet other people who share her interest in drones.
Then there’s the flying. She loves taking drones up in the air. She sees it as a way to get a totally new perspective in a world that has been inundated with smartphones and visual media on the ground. “Everyone can snap a photo on the street, but being able to see a building that you walk by every day from the air is a totally new experience,” she says.
Looking ahead, it’s the many creative applications that provide much excitement. Wildlife use cases are among French’s favorites. There are so many advantages to using drones for this kind of work, such as herding elephants and noninvasively gathering DNA from the mucus blown upward from a whale’s blowhole.
Unfortunately, it’s not like there are a ton of women in the drone field. There are so few women that sometimes the behavior can be sexist. It’s not overt, but it’s there, and one of French’s jobs as she sees it is to help point this out. She knows that these instances of subtle sexism add up—and she says there’s no doubt that this steers women from the drone industry.
For example, French recounts showing up at a flying field one afternoon: The field is all guys, which doesn’t bother her at all, but when she tells the man behind the front desk that she’s signing in to fly, he says, “Well, you don’t look like you’re here to fly.”
“Why? Because I had two drones in my hands and a backpack full of gear on me?” French asks. “Or because I’m a woman? I would guess it’s the latter. Those kinds of comments remind me that I don’t fit in and make me feel like I have to fly extra well just to prove myself.”
That’s the thing about the subtle sexism—a woman has to work extra hard to cover the same ground. Still, French believes women are better and stronger for the challenge. “Being the only woman at a flying field means everyone else is going to stop and watch you fly and judge your every move,” she explains. “Have the confidence to get through those situations.”
For French, this confidence comes from the support of other female pilots. She’s met so many women online at conferences and at drone events, and they’ve become not just cohorts but friends. “They’ve become people whose personal lives I care about,” French says. “They are people who I can text a quick question to or just get some support when I feel alone.”
French is doing her part to bring more women into the industry. A favorite event of hers was going to Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture. There she taught 70 female high school students how to fly drones, and each got to take one home at the end of the day.
This article first appeared in IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine December 2017.