kim and makalya wheeler

Meet 2DroneGals photographers Kim and Makalya

This week’s Drone Girl profile highlights a mother-daughter photography duo. Kim and Makalya Wheeler go by 2Drone_Gals on the internet, and in real life they can generally be found flying around the Space Coast of Florida capturing photos and videos.

Kim, the mother half of the duo, got into photography in high school via her cousin’sย  Canon AE-1. Makayla, now 18, started shootingย  with an Olympus C-740 and won her first photography contest at age 10 and at that age already had her photos published in an international nature magazine.

Drone Girl: You have photography backgrounds. How did drones enter your life?

Kim and Makalya: Makaylaโ€™s gift in the visual arts quickly transitioned into the video production realm when she began shooting horse chase sequences out on the trails with her iPod Nano and edited them to music. This led to shooting promotional videos, nature documentaries and short films. The interest in drones developed out of a need for epic aerial cinematography for these types of video projects. Makayla bought her first drone at age 15 when one of her projects won a national video contest. She sold the Grand Prize to purchase the drone, which was the original DJI Phantom 1.

DG:ย That meansย you got in on the drone craze ahead of the curve. How did you learn about drones?

K&M:ย We purchased the Phantom in May 2013. ย We first learned of the Phantom from a friend who was a local pilot and worked in production.

“The Locks” Locals talk about these in reference to controlling water levels on the island. Always wondered what they looked like. So took Solo up to get an overhead pic. Very interesting structure, especially from the sky! [๐Ÿš€A little Space History: Canaveral Lock, the largest navigation lock in Florida was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1965 to secure safe passage of vessels from the Banana River to Port Canaveral and the Atlantic Ocean. The lock reduces tidal-current velocities in Canaveral Harbor, prevents entry of hurricane tides into the Banana River and prevents salt water intrusion. This lock was built larger than originally planned to allow passage of the Saturn rocket’s first stage, used to put Apollo rockets into space.] Pretty neat! ๐Ÿš€

A photo posted by @2drone_gals on

DG: In the Phantom days, there was no FPV or gimbal, unless you cobbled it together yourself. How did you handle the technology back then, vs today, when the technology is much easier to use?

K&M:ย ย Flying without these features that we take for granted in todayโ€™s drones was a challenge to say the least, but it also made for becoming a better pilot. We knew that droneโ€™s capability and the camera setting inside and out. Having to get up in the air within a 7-minute window (due to shorter battery life), plan and execute the shots from the ground with no live feed, took great skill.

FPV takes out all the guess work. Programable smart shots are also an amazing feature that we are beginning to utilize more. Makayla must admit that she was a bit skeptical about Smart Shots at first, and still enjoys flying fully manual for a lot of things; but sometimes itโ€™s hard to fly with the precision that an Orbit or Follow shot brings.

These smart shots are also very helpful in filmmaking, where there are many retakes and the shot has to be exactly the same every time. We also โ€œshoot-to-edit,โ€ which means we know what our post-production needs and capabilities are and have the end result in mind before even taking off with the drone!ย By far, our favorite feature of todayโ€™s drones is having full control of the camera settings in flight.

DG:ย What are you flying now?

K&M:ย We currently fly the 3D Robotics Solo which carries the GoPro camera that we also use for ground and underwater imaging. It is nice to have a drone without an integrated camera. Before flying Solo, our missions were either just photo or just video; now we are able to switch back and forth in flight.

kim and makalya wheeler

Photo by Randy Baker

DG:ย And you are actually a 3DR sponsored pilot team!

M:ย Yes, we were first approached on Instagram because my mom had been posting Solo pictures. Their social media manager asked to use her photos and wanted them in higher resolution. From there, they wanted us to be a part of an article about female drone pilots and wanted us to be sponsored. But it turned out, a month or so later, 3D Robotics downsized. Still, we kept sending them photos and they have featured us multiple times on their channels.

DG:ย Kim’s background is aerospace engineer, while Makayla’s is photography. How do those two skill sets benefit your work?

K&M:ย The two skill sets we bring to the team are complimentary. Kim brings the left-brain skill set and Makayla the right-brain skill set; both integral to flight safety and production excellence.

Kim keeps the drones maintained and performs pre-production tasks and pre-flight checks. She also does any troubleshooting, most of the media management, and public relations.

Makayla is the creative artist and adventure pilot on the team. She has an amazing gift for telling stories with her photographs and video projects.

By the way, you really need a third person to deal with spectator questions, in addition to the drone pilot and spotter.

DG:ย Agreed!ย You’re a mother-daughter team. What’s it like working together?

K&M:ย  We have a very close relationship and get along very well which transcends to flying. Our personalities also provide a mix that results in safe, responsible but exciting flights. Kim is definitely the more conservative and calculated pilot, where as Makayla is more willing to “go for it” to get the shot. Over the past 3 years of drone flights, we have not had a malfunction or pilot error resulting in a crashed or lost drone.

DG:ย The majority of drone pilots are men, but you’re a company of two women! What’s that like?

K&M:ย It cuts both ways. On the one hand, we sometimes feel we are not taken as seriously as our male counterparts who fly drones, particularly when presented with new opportunities. We have had to rely on networking and our photography/cinematography portfolio, which speaks for itself, to gain respect. Generally, other pilots we have met tend to be condescending unless we know them. But, on the other hand, we have been able to fly and collaborate on projects that were unique because we are responsible, experienced and one of the few female pilot teams. Examples of this are being asked to participate in the first international drone photography book and also being allowed to fly in exciting and high security areas places like the local port and nature preserves.

Courtesy Kim and Makayla Wheeler

Courtesy Kim and Makayla Wheeler

DG:ย I love the shot you took (pictured above) of the Space Shuttle Inspiration. What’s the story behind that?

K&M: ย “Inspiration” is a full-scale Space Shuttle mockup built in 1972 by North American Rockwell. The plastic and wood model was made to promote the company’s bid to construct the Space Shuttle fleet. ย Itย was parked on a barge at a nearby storage facility. ย We could see the vertical stabilizer from the causeway as we drove by it for months. ย Finally, we decided to stop by and capture some aerial photos one weekend and are glad we did as it was moved back up to NASA Kennedy Space Center for refurbishment shortly thereafter. It is special to us as we are part of the NASA family and fly out of the Space Coast of Florida.

DG:ย What’s in your future?

K:ย I have been approached by collaborating with a Florida company in education, getting aspiring engineers and teaching them about this technology. Recently we have been collaborating with SWARM.

M:ย I just graduated from high school, so I’m figuring out career choices.ย I’ve always been interested in making films, and drones are just another thing in my tool chest. Now I’m more interested in doing travel photography and videography. Drones are just another way to capture stunning photography.



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