Desi Ekstein: How to go from hobbyist to licensed, revered drone pilot (and how to make money, while you’re at it)

Most people initially get into drones as a hobby. They’re fascinated by the flight, or they’re hoping to gather unique aerial photos. Few go on to turn drones into a lucrative career. But California-based drone pilot Desi Ekstein did just that. Among her many achievements: 

  • Adjunct Instructor of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) at MiraCosta College in Carlsbad, Calif.
  • FAA Certified 107 Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) and Canadian Advance Remote Pilot
  • AUVSI TOP certification category level 3 Remote Pilot with instructor status
  • Lead Representative FAASTeam DronePro in San Diego, Calif.
  • UAS Safety Advisor for Women and Drones
  • Drone instructor at the Elementary Science Institute (EIS) for “Girls Take Flight” and for
Photo courtesy of Desi Ekstein

That’s on top of boots on the ground experience working for companies primarily to help them with data collection for aerial inspections of infrastructure, agriculture, and construction. She primarily uses software from DroneDeploy and Pix4D to generate maps and models for clients.

Most recently, she became a published author, having published her first book titled “Elevate Your Standards: Building an Operations Manual for your Uncrewed Aircraft Systems Company” in December 2021.

Known widely as Drone Diva Desi, Desiree Ekstein shares how she went from hobby pilot to one of the most revered drone pilots out there (note this interview has been edited for clarity and style):

Do you know an awesome drone girl I should profile? Contact me here.

Drone Girl: You’ve achieved the dream of what I’d guess is most people reading this: turning a fun hobby into a real job. At what point did you realize that you could make money in the industry?

Desi Ekstein: Because I started so long ago, I think that when the drone industry took off I grew with it. My first drone was the DJI Phantom 2, and I also had a Parrot AR drone.

I remember back then, it was all about photography and getting that higher perspective. Any picture you put out there was like, “wow.”

As far as making money in drones goes, one of the cool things I’ve reinforced through my work at MiraCosta College is that we are all unmanned systems technicians. I have seen so many opportunities. It’s not just flying a drone. There’s a lot that can be done in terms of building it, programming it, flying it, and understanding what to do with the data you get from it.

Once the doors are open, the possibilities are endless.

Drone Girl: Outside of conducting mapping and modeling missions for businesses, you have kind of a cool side, volunteer project you’re working on. Tell us about that!

Desi Ekstein: Outside of flying drones for a living, my husband and I take our drones to old mining areas to preserve history.  My husband is a gold prospector who likes to dig for gold, so we’ll go out into the desert and seek out these old mining areas. I’ll take my drone and create 3D models of mining areas that are abandoned.

I use it to record history.  With these models, you can see the transition through time. Now we have not only documented photos, but a 3D model of the area. That creates a resource for generations in the future.

DG: Let’s talk a bit about your book, “Elevate Your Standards: Building an Operations Manual for your Uncrewed Aircraft Systems Company” which was published in December 2021. First off, congrats on being a published author! 

DE: Well, it’s been a work in progress forever. To have it done is like, “wow. I’m an author.”

A screenshot of Ekstein’s book.

DG: How did the idea for the book come about?

DE: As a UAS instructor, safety has always been first and foremost with me. That’s my main passion — the safety side of things. Every time I run a class, I push safety. 

And every time I run these classes, I put together materials like checklists or pre-flight planning materials. It’s something I’ve always provided and tried to hone in on. And as I’ve compiled all these checklists, I’ve thought about how I can maximally reach out to others.

So often people just don’t know where to start in terms of safety and operational procedures. This is a starting point for people. 

DG: I don’t know a ton of people who say their main passion in drones is safety. Why does it strike you so deeply?

DE:  I’ve always been a business entrepreneur, and doing things the right way right out the gate has always been my focus.

DG: And with drones, it’s so easy not to do things the right way.

DE: Some people just don’t have any idea about the safety side of things. They go to Best Buy and fly a drone and they put it in the air like a toy. They don’t realize that — according to the FAA — they’re pilots now.

DG: That really changed when the FAA launched its Recreational Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety Test (reduced to an acronym of sorts as TRUST) in June 2021. That requires hobby pilots to take an online training course and pass a simple test.

DE: When you think about an outreach program, it’s nice to be able to provide knowledge such as through TRUST. Yet people getting started don’t realize that TRUST is out there.

I imagine a lot of people start out like me, thinking, it’s a flying camera. It’s that flying camera perspective that tends to get people into the industry. Then they think, I can start making money out of this! Then they learn through TRUST that they can then get that Part 107 drone pilot’s cetificate.

Drone Diva Desi

DG:  A key focus of your book is helping commercial operators set up operating procedures. What sorts of procedures are often overlooked?

DE: I’m not sure this is something overlooked, but one thing I hope pilots hone in on is a focus on preflight planning. I’m shocked to see how these big companies I work for hadn’t gone through any preflight planning procedures. They just throw their drone in the air.

DG: What are some of the most crucial aspects of preflight planning?

DE: You want to make sure you know what airspace you’re in. Many customers don’t realize there is different airspace, or why there is. Find out what hazards might be in a certain location. You want to know when is the safest time to be in an area, like when there’s the least amount of traffic.

You also should have a preflight checklist in place prior to getting on site. Bring an extra drone, as you never know what might happen.

And don’t overlook PPE. I’ve been in situations where suddenly it’s snowing. Or, you find yourself in Palm Springs where it’s over 100 degrees.

DG: What you said about PPE reminds me about another thing — how you dress.

DE: I have a hot pink safety vest and a pink hard hat. Put on a safety vest and hold a clipboard, and you can go anywhere and do anything. 

Your presentation speaks volumes. So if you’re in it to win it, present yourself as a professional.

Photo courtesy of Desi Ekstein

DG: Going back a bit to getting certified, I want to congratulate you on not just being certified in the U.S., but in Canada too.

DE: Yes, I’m a remote pilot with Transport Canada.  They require a practical flight assessment, which is something we don’t have in the U.S. I went to Canada with Sharon Rossmark, who runs the Women and Drones group including its Women to Watch in UAS awards and is also an author. The test was definitely different, yet they incorporate so much more into a shorter amount of time. Of course, Sharon and I did touristy things in Canada too, like Niagara Falls.

DG: Now that sounds like a fun trip! Okay, now time for some rapid fire questions. If you could have a drone deliver you anything right now, what would it be?

DE: A Mavic Mini 2.

DG: What’s your top drone to fly right now?

DE: I recently got the DJI FPV, which I’ve been having fun with.

DG: 10 years ago, what did you think you would be doing for work?

DE: Definitely not this. I was actually owning and operating a successful party business.

Drone Girl: What’s the best place you’ve flown?

Desi Ekstein: The mining areas that we do our volunteer mapping work in.

3D model of Congress AZ church, from Desi Ekstein.

Check out Desi Ekstein’s book “Elevate Your Standards: Building an Operations Manual for your Uncrewed Aircraft Systems Company” which is available now. You can also find Desi Ekstein on Instagram @DroneDivaDesi

If you know any great drone girls who deserve to be profiled (including you!), contact me here.

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