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Pilot Spotlight: Interview with Kerry Mapes

Kerry Mapes

Company: University of North Carolina Wilmington; Geo Owl

Location: Wilmington, NC, US

Tell us about yourself.

I specialize in the application of unmanned aerial systems and sensor technology to collect and analyze environmental data. A lot of the research I participate in focuses on the integration of drone technology with other location-based data to analyzing complex questions about coastal environments, including thermal analysis of beach-nesting bird habitats, multispectral analysis of an invasive grass species in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and thermal analysis of stream pollution sources.

I have nearly three years of experience in the collection and photogrammetric processing of drone imagery, and I'm currently learning to work with a new LiDAR system to collect and analyze data to map wetlands. I am also interested in the effects of drones on animal behavior ever since I participated in a research project where we assess the reaction of birds to a fixed-wing drone. Let's just say they hated it, and we ended up painting it blue to reduce its visibility while flying.

What inspired you to begin flying drones, and what made you want to enter the industry as a drone pilot?

I originally learned to fly while completing my Master's degree, and began using drones for photogrammetry before I ever became involved in photography. I noticed the huge potential within that field, especially as it relates to the ability to not just collect the imagery, but to process it and perform complex analyses such as land cover classifications with the integration of machine learning algorithms. This is more or less what led to my decision to specialize in drones.

Drone photo by Kerry Mapes

What were you doing before this, and what made you make the transition?

Before I went to school for my Master's degree, I was an aquatic entomologist. Before that, I was a cosmetologist... I wanted to make the transition, ultimately from the biological sciences into the geographic sciences because of the better job prospects. The drones thing all kind of just happened by chance and luck and a lot of support from my academic advisor, who is now my boss at the university.

What drone(s) are you currently flying, and what drone accessories do you love?

My personal drone that I fly for photography is a DJI Mavic 2 Pro. I love my set of Tiffen filters, since I photograph mainly coastal environments and they cut down on glare from the water. I am lucky to have experience with so many different platforms and sensors through work, including DJI Phantom, DJI M200, DJI M600, and my personal favorite, the senseFly eBee plus fixed-wing drone. I have used a variety of RGB, multispectral, and thermal sensors including MicaSense, FLIR, and senseFly.

Drone photo by Kerry Mapes

What is your favorite feature on your drone and why?

My favorite feature on the eBee is the flight automation - it flies autonomously on a pre-programmed flight route. It also stops its engine every time it takes a photo to reduce camera shake, which I think is just incredible.

What drone images are you most proud of and why?

I am most proud of my images of the marshes of North Carolina. No one would ever know how amazingly intricate and beautiful these ecosystems are from above if it were not for drones.

Have you learned any valuable lessons from being in the drone industry that you can share with our female drone community?

I guess I would just tell them that anything is possible. I think some women are intimidated in this space because it is so male-dominated. I have never once felt out of place though, or had anyone make me feel that they didn't see me as an equal because I was a woman.

In fact, I frequently have men asking me for advice on different drone-related topics. I don't think it matters what your gender is, or that anyone really cares, as long as you can do your job efficiently and completely. Just know your strengths and speak confidently - those qualities translate across the entire gender spectrum.

Drone photo by Kerry Mapes

Whether it's from a creative, commercial, or humanitarian perspective, tell us about the most memorable drone flight you have piloted thus far.

An absolutely hands-down, most memorable experience is flying with my co-worker and his drone deciding to auto-land over a marsh. The up and down control stopped working, and luckily he managed to guide it forward onto a nearby piece of solid ground as I am yelling in the background.

We couldn't walk to it and pick it up because of the water, and happened to be on an island that allows no vehicles except golf carts. So, he frantically hops in the golf cart and speeds away to grab the drone before someone else does - and luckily it all worked out!

What would you say to women and girls about the drone industry to spark their interest in getting involved?

A lot of people know how to fly drones. A lot of people know how to take pictures or videos with drones. But relatively few know how to execute a full-scale data collection mission, process the data, and use that to solve a problem.

Drones are an integral part of my process of answering questions about our Earth. I have gotten to travel to some beautiful places for work, along the coast, and in the mountains. This coming year I may be going to Mexico and Colombia through work.

Opportunities like these come around when you have a desirable skill set. So, if you want to make a career out of it, you need to specialize to stand out, because anyone can do this for fun - just buy a cheap drone to practice on and don't be afraid. But you have to practice or you will never improve, so don't give up if your photos are terrible or you crash it into a tree.

Drone photo by Kerry Mapes

What excites you most about more women joining the drone industry?

I think that having a better balance of gender across all disciplines is good. There really is no particular barrier to women joining this field, they just need to go out and do it!

Do you have any drone tips & tricks you can share with our audience?

I am an advocate for pre-planning. For scientific missions or photography. When I go out to take photos, I scout Google Earth for cool spots and plan how I want my shots to look. I mark locations on my phone on Google Maps so I can navigate easily. I get a lot accomplished this way.

What's the best way for our readers to get in touch with you?

The best way to get a hold of me socially or for photography reasons is through my Instragram @unmappedearth. For research-related questions, contact me on LinkedIn (Kerry Mapes)

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you?

I am a mother of two kids, 5 and 4. I started grad school when they were 22 months and 5 months old. I learned everything I know about drones to give them a better life than I had, and did it mostly on very little sleep.


Kerry Mapes has a Master of Science in Geosciences and Geospatial Technology, as well as a Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems. She recently obtained her GEOINT Professional certificate from the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

She currently works at a local university where she engages in multiple research projects using RGB, multispectral, and thermal drone imagery and is currently learning to collect and analyze LiDAR data. She has taught college-level courses in geography and drone science. In addition to her job at the university, she works part-time for a GEOINT company as a proposal specialist. She also owns a small LLC where she mostly sells prints of her drone photography.


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