Meet one of the world’s first aerial cinematographers: Leisa Adkins

The next in our Women in Drones series, Leisa Adkins of Perfect Perspectives. The Ohio-based aerial video company provides 6K UDH Red Epic Dragon aerial video for feature films and TV programs. The company is one of the world’s first RC helicopter filming or aerial video companies with the unmanned payload capacity and experience to safely carry high-definition UDH digital cinematography cameras. In fact, they’ve been carrying 8-10 pound cameras through the year since 2005.

Photo courtesy Leisa Adkins

Photo courtesy Leisa Adkins

Drone Girl: Wow, you’ve been in carrying cinematography cameras through the air since 2005?

Leisa Adkins: We put our first camera on a helicopter in 2004. It did okay but was nitro powered so it was hard to keep smoke out of the shots. We quickly bought a big gas powered helicopter to resolve the smoke problem. We then started shooting music videos, golf courses and TV commercials using a 7 lb. Panasonic HV200 camera. The whole rig was very heavy and weighed 36 lbs. but was very reliable and stable in the wind. I wanted to start the business much sooner but it was just about impossible at the time to get liability or hull insurance for a drone.

DG: When did you first get into RC then?

LA: Back in the early 80’s, one (of my friends) was using an RC helicopter and a fixed 35mm camera to take photos of celebrity homes in Miami for the National Enquirer. Another did something similar by taking photos of vacation homes in Canada. Neither one could see what the camera was pointed at in the air and just shot away hoping to get anything. My family has been heavily involved in RC helicopters for over 35 years now. Both flying in, and organizing events and competitions.

DG: So drones are a family affair for you?

LA: We started the XFC Extreme Flight Championships, for example, with a couple of our friends. In 1993 my husband, Wendell, and I, along with our two daughters helped the United States Team win an FAI-F3C Helicopter World Championship in Velden, Austria. Wendell flew and I was the mechanic/caller. Later in 1998, Wendell flew an animatronic bird from one of our helicopters in Sharon Stone’s movie “The Mighty”.

DG: So you’ve been in this a long time. What changes have you noticed in the industry, even in the past year?

LA: Low cost GPS autopilots and multicopters. The first autopilot we looked at cost $20,000 and we couldn’t justify or afford it. When we started, the only people doing really good work all had top notch pilots, mechanics and designers. Today these skills are becoming less and less necessary to do the job. I remember seeing that first video of DJI’s Ace One GPS and thought, ‘wow, this is really going to change things!’

Another big change is most all early drone companies were all very focused on safety. I think this was because they grew up flying under the AMA safety code and so were conditioned to never fly over people and crowds.

DG: Safety is huge! What do you think about the general public’s current approach to drone safety?

LA: We’re in a pickle. I really think there should be some type of training, to know how to fly them safely. Be aware of where they should be flying and where they shouldn’t be.

DG: So people should be required to go through formal training?

LA: There’s been talk about if someone continues to fly, they may have to get their pilots license. Ground school cannot hurt. It makes you more aware of what a pilot does. Being up in the air and taking pilot school is unnecessary.

DG: You take safety really seriously.

LA: A lot of people get all excited about getting a shot. If a director and producer will push you, you have to be smart and firm enough to say no. I’m not going to get that shot. Doing the concert thing, the large crowd is so risky. Anything that is going to come out of the sky is going to hurt.

DG: You came from the RC world, and now there is this crowd of people who just fly drones. What differences have you noticed?

LA: There’s always been divides across the RC world — even whether you’re a helicopter pilot or an airplane pilot. I actually think the DJI drones are in their own little class. I think with the DJI products, they pretty much fly themselves because they’re piloted-assisted. We come from a long line of learning to pilot, become mechanics and builders. We mastered those skills.

DG: So what advice do you have for someone who wants to go into something beyond a Phantom?

LA: What I would recommend is learning how to pilot without the assistance of an autopilot. What if you are in an area where you can’t get your GPS signal? How do you get it down safely without risking your gear?

DG: What has been your experience being a woman in a male-dominated industry?

LA: Initially I think it’s a little harder to get the respect you deserve as a woman in any business but once people see what you bring to the table that quickly goes away. In some ways I think being a woman in this business is an advantage, particularly when working with a female producer or marketing manager for example. While I am very comfortable talking technical when it comes to drones, I can tone it down also when needed. Another advantage is I don’t have a strong desire to own every new gadget that comes along. I perform an economic evaluation on every major piece of equipment we buy. It either has a reasonable payback or it doesn’t. I’m also very in tune with our core cost of doing business and don’t let my emotions dictate what purchases are made.

DG: So what’s in your future?

LA: At the moment we are hard at work putting together our first of three FAA Section 333 exemptions. We have been keeping flight and maintenance logs for 7 years now so we have a lot of experience to draw from there which is a big help. We currently have 8 aerial rigs and a blimp. We have dipped our toes into almost every market out there over the last 10 yeas and now have a really good idea where we want to specialize. I am very excited about where this all is going to go in the future and am very happy that we started as early as we did.

DG: And last question, what advice do you have for other women getting into drones?

LA: Go for it! Just go for it. If you have an interest, do it. Whether it’s coming up with new technology to assist a pilot, or building camera gear, do it. It’s not just for guys.

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