Behind the Controls: ‘Drone Girl’ Sally French

We’re launching a new, weekly feature here on It’s called ‘Behind the Controls’. We hope to interview outstanding pilots and ‘movers and shakers’ in the drone industry. If you have someone you’d like us to spotlight in an upcoming #BTC feature, drop us a line.

Sally French never intended to get involved with drones. But when she did, she was hooked and she’s shattering many people’s beliefs that drones are just a ‘guy thing’. While Sally doesn’t fly commercially and sell her services, she does enjoy flying various types of drones and speaking about the industry quite often.  Today we chat with Drone Girl Sally French.

Sally stands tall at 4’10” and usually wearing a sundress and has a cup of coffee nearby. She’s a southern California native, journalist and “geek girl” who loves drones.

Her work has been published in outlets including The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, NPR, CNN, The BBC, Forbes, The Economist and  the Orange County Register.

She’s just like many pilots in that she’s taken some amazing video and had some disastrous crashes. That’s why we are spotlighting her as our inaugural interviewee for ‘Behind the Controls’ (#FullDroneBTC). Thanks to Sally for telling us her story.

Drone Girl Sally French
Sally French, The Drone Girl (Source: Sally French)

Behind the Controls: ‘Drone Girl’ Sally French

What got you interested in drones in the first place?

Drones flew into my lap in a way. I needed one credit to graduate college and my school was offering a drone journalism course. It was basically the only thing that fit into my schedule. But as a photojournalism major looking for a way to differentiate my photos, the drones had me hooked.

What do you currently fly?

Whatever is in my closet! I go in and out of drones so quickly. At the moment I have seven drones in my house. Among those, I have 3 standout favorites. The Autel X-Star has amazing image quality and is super light and tiny — great for traveling or toting along to the beach with me.

I love the Yuneec Typhoon H for situations where I’m really trying to get the perfect shot. The controls give me so many options in terms of camera placement so it’s the easies for filming.

I’m also having way too much fun with the Blade Nano QX2 FPV racing drone. I fly it between my bedroom and living room when I have free time!

We see you dedicate a lot of your time to drones and your website. What are some things you speak on related to drones when you travel?

Everything! Seriously, it really depends on the audience. The drone industry comes from so many varied backgrounds so I really have to tailor my talks to what type of event it is: hardcore aviation enthusiasts who don’t know about drones, FAA employees who work in fields like air traffic control, and are just now interacting with drones in their day-to-day lives, kids who have never flown anything RC in their life, RC experts who have been flying their home-built aircraft for 20 years, policy people setting drone laws who might not have flown a drone themselves — pretty much everyone and anyone!

Sally French
Sally French

What do you think about the current state of drone law – there was the Section 333 Exemption, now Part 107, do you think the government is headed in the right direction with such a popular hobby/career?

Absolutely. It’s been really fascinating to watch people’s politics define their views on drone laws. I think the FAA has struck a perfect balance with their approach to both Part 107 and registration laws. It’s easy enough that anyone who wants to fly drones can do it.

On the hobby side, you just need to pay $5 (which is not unreasonable considering you spent multiple hundreds of dollars on the drone itself) and write the registration number on your drone. No sweat!

On the commercial side, you need to take a test which I liken to taking the driver’s license test. It’s sort of annoying, but we all took the driver’s license test at age 15, so we can do this too.

But the rules are restrictive enough that they make it evident that drones are not a toy. They are something the government takes seriously. The laws are a happy medium that create a culture of safety without limiting innovation.

Have you crashed a drone? If so, can you tell us what happened?

Oh my gosh, so many times. The first time I flew a drone was in early 2013 — a DJI Flame Wheel. There was no stabilization, and I crashed it within about 10 seconds of getting the transmitter in my hands.

I then had some cheap toy drones to practice on. I crashed the first one on the roof of a building, but since it was just about $15, I didn’t bother to get it. I crashed the second one into a tree, and one of my classmates actually climbed up and got it for me.

I always advise people now to start on the cheap drones like these, because they are significantly harder to fly than the $1,000 Phantoms, so mastering that makes you a better pilot. And when you inevitably crash, they are so light and cheap that it’s not a big deal.

drone girl
The Drone Girl: Sally French

What has been your favorite shoot or project?

That’s tough! Everything! I had so much fun doing a day long demo at Harvard University. It was a weekend and we invited kids from the Boston area to the stadium to watch drone demos from some really fascinating drone companies. Matternet even delivered t-shirts via drone to the field!

What would be your advice for other women who’d like to get involved in drones?

There will be obstacles, no doubt. Women have to work 10x harder than men. I constantly feel like I have to “prove” I know what I’m talking about, or present myself in a way that isn’t natural just to fit in.

I was actually just at a flying field and went to the front desk to sign in. I could see the field was all guys, which doesn’t bother me. But when I said, “Good afternoon, I’m signing in to fly,” the man at the desk said, “Well, you don’t look like you’re here to fly.” Why? Because I had two drones in my hands and a backpack full of gear on me? Or because I’m a woman. I would guess it’s the latter. Those kinds of comments remind me that I don’t fit in, and make me feel like I have to fly extra well just to prove myself.

Subtle sexism like that happens all the time. I encourage all people, not just women, to be cognizant of those types of situations so that more women can feel like they are part of the community and not an anomaly.

What do you think the biggest misconceptions is of drones?

I think a lot of people who haven’t been exposed to drones other than via news reports of drones crashing assume that drones are scary and unsafe. A lot of people who honestly don’t know anything about drones make comments about wanting to “shoot them down” or “ban them,” and those comments are rooted in ignorance.

I hope the public is made aware of the numerous safety features, like GEO that DJI has pioneered, or the new Part 107 ruling so they realize that drones are actually really safe. My goal with Drone Girl is to share news in an accessible manner so that the general public won’t have those misconceptions.

Check out ‘Drone Girl’ Sally French online!