"It's hard for me to say that capturing an erupting volcano was the most memorable moment, or the refugee camp, or flying my drone in the jungle, or capturing the sunrise or sunset on the beautiful islands. Or shooting the temples in the distance, the gorgeous rice terraces of Asia, or meeting the locals and watching their faces asthey looked into my smart phone to see an aerial view of the place that they call home. All of it is one special memory in my heart."
Most people would consider any one of those opportunities to be a standout moment in their career, or indeed their lives, but for drone aerial photographer Rhianna Lakin such things have become almost the norm over recent years. Triggered by her love of Indonesia and a desire to both capture the good and raise awareness of the bad things happening there, it seems that there's a keen sense of adventure in Rhianna's photographic work - even though her story begins in the rather more sedate surroundings of a drone retailer. It seems that drones or quadcopters are bringing good to the world amongst the debate over their regulation.
"It all really started with me trying to sell marketing services to my cousin's good friend," Rhianna explains. "We met up to talk about my services and he showed me one of his aerial videos that featured some well-known Oregon places. I'd never seen a perspective like that before and I absolutely fell in love with this view!"
However, even back then Rhianna could see how drones could be used for so much more. "I really started thinking about all the positive uses for this type of technology and how it could be used for good, especially for natural disasters, humanitarian aid, conservation projects, search and rescue... the list goes on. My mind went crazy with the possibilities and I pretty much knew right away I wanted to learn how to fly with the goal to then use my knowledge to help others."
Not that getting started was easy. This was 2012 and, as she was selling the likes of DJI, Aeronavics and PhotoHigher products, Rhianna was well aware that these things weren't cheap. "Back then if you wanted to do aerial photography you were going to have to drop some serious dough and have good technical knowledge," she recalls. "The systems I sold were DJI S800 hexacopters and Aeronavics Skyjib octocopters; a RTF system would cost anywhere from $10k-$20k and your gimbal choices were very limited."
According to Rhianna; "No matter where I flew, the people came to find me and watch. They really loved it."
According to Rhianna "everything changed" with the release of the original DJI Phantom Quadcopter Drone as the move away from expensive builds towards a "little out-of-box white quadcopter that people could attach their GoPros to" began. Suddenly consumers were able to pick up an affordable plug-and-play quadcopter and get a camera in the air - and Rhianna didn't waste much time in joining in acquiring a Phantom and never looking back.
In terms of what she's flying now, Rhianna has upgraded her original Phantom to a Phantom Vision Plus - or rather two of them after she picked up a replacement when she inadvertently ditched the first one into the sea. "I've put them both up for sale and told myself that if I sold them I could buy a Phantom 3 - but whenever people asked about buying one I always talk them out of it. I think I'll have them forever! I also still have my original Phantom as well!" With the Phantom 4 now upon us maybe Rhianna will finally be convinced to upgrade? "Right now everything is still in its infancy and it's going to be crazy to see what happens in the next ten years. I mean we've already come so far in the last four years! I can see the Phantom 4 becoming the best drone for aerial photography. New applications and uses are being discovered or improved daily. It used to be difficult to do mapping and now it's almost as easy as pushing a button and sending your info to the cloud to render. I foresee a continued advancement of FUR and multi-sensor cameras, such as DJI a nd FLIR's Zenmuse XT gimbal. This is a huge step forward and one that will greatly help with search and rescue, as well as firefighting."
Although based in Oregon in the US, Rhianna and her two children have also spent a great deal of the 21st Century in Indonesia, notably around the village of Bukit Lawang in the North Sumatra province. "Some of the most memorable events of my life happened there and they are the reason I started flying," she says. "One such moment being a flash flood that wiped out the village where we lived, which many believe was the result of soil erosion due to illegal logging in the jungle. I was also in region when the Indian Ocean tsunami happened in 2004 and got involved with the disaster relief following it."
Flying in conditions where "it's really hot and hard to see when there's sweat stripping down your forehead" brings its own problems as well. "The biggest challenge for me is the technological aspect, not just with my drone but with technology in general," she tells us, explaining a failed attempt to 3D map a refugee camp in Rohingya to help build housing. However, as always, Rhianna still found it a worthwhile and rewarding experience. "It was a touching experience for me and the children, and the people really loved watching me fly. I do hope that some of the photos I took there helped to shed some light on the situation and gave a perspective to who the refugeesreally are." Although her experiences weren't always memorable for the right reasons, quoting her worst moment being when she crashed her copter into the ocean just three weeks into the trip (admitting "it was pilot error!"), Rhianna enjoyed her time there so much that she's keen to go back. "Flying there was so amazing, and how could it not be?
"I was fulfilling a dream! Indonesia is a beautiful country and a photographer's paradise; jungles mountains, oceans, islands, temples, rich culture and, of course, volcanoes. So you have this natural beauty and on top of it the people are so nice and welcoming, and they loved watching me fly,so I was really in heaven."
"I can see the Phantom 4 becoming the best drone for aerial photography"
It's not often that photographers get to capture so many moments that truly impact upon human life, so we asked Rhianna whether shooting around illegal gold mines or refugee camps brought an added emotional element. "I really embrace moments that are so big and so powerful that they change me forever. Shooting the illegal goldmines and knowing that the people in this village are faced with a choice of malnutrition, or even starvation, because of poverty or health issues due to the use of mercury, really puts things into perspective and makes me think 'what if it was me that had to make those choices?'
"The difference in shooting the goldmines, volcano and refugee camp, as opposed to all my other shoots, was interacting with the people; people who either have nothing or have lost everything. In the case of the refugee camp I was looking into the faces of people that had escaped violence only to be left out in the ocean to die. It is emotional to see their struggle, it's humbling and I wanted to save them. It was also important for me to show their smiles through my photos, because it issomething that amazed me in all of these places: the smiles! I wondered how those with the least and whose lives and futures are so uncertain can shine the brightest smile. Maybe they are just grateful to be alive and this has impacted upon me more than I could ever put into words."
As well as making frequent trips to south-east Asia, Rhianna has also been busy working with the Amelia Dronehart group she founded in 2014. It began as "one of those late night ideas" after she'd met a few fellow female pilots and began noticing more appearing on forums, such as Laurie Rubin and Stacy Garlington.
"I really admired their work and felt a kindred spirit being one of the few ladies in the industry. This was also at a time when UAVs started getting some really bad press and it was frustrating to me. So I thought that maybe by starting a group for women we could have a place where we could connect and share ideas, and that maybe we could also show a 'softer'side to the industry. I mean how could the press turn a single mum or a grandma that flies a drone into a fear mongering story?"
As the idea gathered momentum and women began to get on board, so the group expanded. "The feedback and excitement was awesome!" Rhianna tells us. "When Istarted the group I estimated that there were probably around 50 women in the world who were flying. But then it went crazy and all of a sudden I started noticing more and more women on Facebook and Instagram who were also flying. Now we have almost 300 women in the group and I know there are many more out there."
It's worth noting that Rhianna didn't intend for the group to be strong female voice in this largely male-dominated industry. "The group started simply to connect like-minded female flyers," she says. "However, since we started it has also become a platform to promote women in the industry and inspire new women. The Dronehart group has never been about us 'isolating' ourselves - in fact almost all of us are very active in other groups as well - it's simply a way for us to connect and inspire."
Indeed, Rhianna says that she's seen little in the way of negativity towards female flyers. "In fact, I have had nothing but support from the men in the industry and have built some very special and wonderful relationships. I do believe that the Dronehart group has set a presence for this industry and we have been known to swarm in as a group and offer our opinion on companies that want to use "booth babes" or highly sexualized marketing to promote their products. My hope isthat women and young ladies will feel comfortable stepping into this new and exciting industry." She also adds with a smile: "I jokingly tell men that if they want to motivate their ladies to fly, they should send them to the Dronehart group as our excitement is contagious!"
Rhianna is now back in Portland, working as a freelancer with support from Skyris Imaging, having worked with them on a recovery search and with plans to start practice runs with her local search and rescue teams. "I have several goals and things I would like to do," she tells us. "All or mem have common themes, either using my drone for good or adventure or a combination of the two. My ultimate goal isto help with humanitarian missions, along with natural and environmental disasters. However, because I'm a mum I have to be realistic that I can't do anything that would take me away from my kids for too long, so this is a bit tricky but not impossible.
Rhianna has given demos and has let the residents at a local retirement home fly her Phantom drone. A part of her Amelia Earhart awareness talks - the pilot who inspired the "Dronehart" name.
"On the more adventurous side I would love to get sponsored to do an aerial adventure around the country. Or even better an aerial trip around the world with my kids... hey, you can dream big right?! But my main goal is to live in Indonesia and continue capturing aerial imagery and events happening in that region like I have done previously. Ultimately I just want to use my skills to help save the jungle, the animals and the people." And we certainly wish her well on all counts.
You can see more of Rhianna's work by following her on Instagram and Twitter @aerialrhianna. You can also check out her bio and find out more about the Amelia Dronehart group by heading to www.ameliadronehart. com or via their Facebook page.