“Professional drone pilot” is certainly among the most enviable titles you can inscribe on your business card or proclaim for yourself at cocktail parties. And sure, there are plenty of professional drone pilots out there, but there’s only one like Craig Coker.
Craig Coker currently has a contract with Sony to act as the Japanese camera company’s official drone pilot — a crucial gig as the company seeks to ramp up its drone, the Sony Airpeak S1. In the role, Coker doesn’t simply make pretty photos and videos (though he certainly does that). He’s testing out the drone, specifically putting it through stress tests where he initially navigates it through complicated routes or in harsh environments to find its flaws (and report them back the the designers and engineers). Perhaps most impressively though, is he is a driving force in providing feedback about the drone itself.
But as Official Sony Drone Pilot, Coker isn’t just a drone pilot. He’s a technical guy who is entrenched in the DIY side of drones, too — and he’s been there for years. Before joining Sony, he consulted with other major drone makers including DJI, 3DR, Yuneec and GoPro — telling the people who make the products exactly what drone pilots want and need. And as a self-described “full-blown computer nerd” Coker has had his hands on pretty much every major consumer drone as it underwent the production process — and that includes the Sony Airpeak S1 drone.
I sat down with Coker to find out all about the incredible influence he has had in shaping today’s drone landscape — and how he has managed to land what might be the coolest job in drones.
Drone Girl: You’re a photographer. You’re a drone pilot. Together, you produce tons of content for action sports, TV shows, commercials, product shoots, and documentaries. And then, you also consult with drone companies to test and give feedback on improving their products — currently working with Sony on the company’s Sony Airpeak S1 drone. How did you get into all of this?
Craig Coker: I’ve been a drone pilot for more than 10 years, having worked with almost all of the drone manufacturers to help tune their aircraft.
DG: You’re currently with Sony, but where have you worked in the past?
CC: DJI, 3D Robotics, Yuneec and GoPro.
DG: That’s a lot of influence! How did you get into this?
CC: Well there’s a lot of luck to this. Up until about 10 years ago, I was a professional freestyle skier, and I was traveling the world. As a skier, video production companies and magazines would always shoot me skiing, and it always fascinated me how they made those shots.
I used them as a way to learn about filming and shooting. It was almost like going to school.
DG: And I guess that was just about the time when drones were coming out.
CC: Exactly. And so when my freestyle skiing career started to phase out, I had to think of something else.
DG: Let me guess. Drones.
CC: I was always a full blown computer nerd. I was always into RC hobbies like playing with RC cars, and I had done work fixing RC airplanes. Given that, I already knew about the production of and how to fly fixed-wing copters. I even did single rotor 360 acrobatic flying.
And then of course I always had a passion in photography. So, I decided I need to figure out something that I love and want to make a job. I combined the two ideas.
DG: That sure sounds like drone pilot to me.
CC: I got a drone that was all DIY. I got components from all these places. I strapped a GoPro to it. You couldn’t even see what the cameras were seeing.
DG: Ah, those were the days! My first drone was a DJI Phantom 1 and — same story — you had to wait until you uploaded the footage to your computer to see what the drone camera was seeing.
CC: I was working with a production company called Sweatpants Media. They were doing big commercial endeavors, short films, and television series. We had huge accounts, like Toyota. I told them I wanted to do aerial stuff.
But at the time — while it was a cool, unique perspective — the quality wasn’t there.
DG: So you made it yourself.
CC: I made a heavy lift drone, and I figured we’d see how it goes. We’d add Reds (those are the top of the line digital cinema cameras) to it. Toyota thought it was insane, as they wouldn’t need manned aircraft anymore. Some of these rigs I was building were a quarter of a million dollars. We started working with a lot of companies in Hollywood.
That said, there was no 3-axis gimbal. It was all 2-axis and still driven by servos, so it was super twitchy.
DG: Ah ha, I remember my first gimbal I tried to mount myself on my DJI Phantom!
CC: Right, and that’s all about the same time that the DJI Phantom came out. I had seen Colin Guinn (former CEO of DJI North America) online, and he seemed like he knew what he was talking about.
That year, he was at the NAB Show (that’s an annual trade show produced by the National Association of Broadcasters, held in Las Vegas) with some DJI Phantom prototypes.
DG: So you went to go meet him.
CC: I just went straight up to him and showed him what I built.
DG: And he made time to talk to you?
CC: I was persistent. I knew what I wanted to get to move forward. That’s important in this industry. We ended up having a conversation, and out of that he invited me to DJI’s team dinner at NAB in Vegas.
That led to me getting work with DJI, which was my first account working with drone manufacturers.
DG: Colin Guinn left DJI North America in 2014, and went on to work for the now-defunct drone maker 3D Robotics. Since you said you also worked with 3DR, I’m guessing he was your in there, too?
CC: Exactly, he approached 3DR about their Solo drone. I moved with him to help tune and bring new ideas to the drone industry, like Smart Shots.
DG: Smart shots allowed you to pre-program flight paths so in theory you could concentrate on taking the videos or photos rather than flying the drone. At the time, it was basically first of its kind.
CC: And now, pretty much every drone gives you full autonomy of cinematic ‘smart shots.’ I like to believe that idea all came from 3D Robotics. If anything, Smart Shots really pushed 3D Robotics ahead.
DG: What else of your work can be found within 3D Robotics?
CC: At 3DR, I helped develop a drone light kit, mounting lights on drones to give a different perspective.
CC: Well, I needed a camera. I knew Sony Alpha cameras were really good. And after leaving 3D Robotics, I still had a bunch of kits. I thought I would approach Sony and see if anyone was willing to trade a drone kit for a camera.
DG: Hah, that’s so bold!
CC: Yeah, but they turned me down. But I told them, ‘if you ever want to fly drones, look me up and I’m happy to help.’
DG: And when it came time for them to build a drone, they remembered you?
CC: Not quite. Between then and the Airpeak period, I ended up just buying my own Alpha camera system. From there, I landed assignments with Sony, working on the Alpha side.
But all this time, they knew I was a drone operator. Finally, they called to say they were building a drone, and they wanted me to be their go-to pilot. They gave me a demo of the Airpeak S1.
DG: What did you think of it?
CC: I immediately saw that it had unique flight characteristics, like how well it can hold its position and carry itself.
Plus, Sony already has the Alpha cameras which are so superior. Because there are so many kinds and combinations, I saw the potential of what this aircraft could be.
DG: You’re an athlete, a photographer, a builder, a pilot. How do you describe your job title?
CC: Maybe, marketing and tech product consultant.
DG: That feels so bland! That’s it? I’ve flown every one of the drones you’ve worked on, and it feels like your heart is in each drone.
CC: It is, you’re right. This is pure passion.
DG: Because your heart is in pretty much every major drone, do you have a favorite?
CC: Every drone manufacturer I’ve worked with has something unique. The drone has a specific interest to a certain industry. Sometimes the drone makers go in one direction and then realize their product is better in another direction.
DG: It feels like you’re talking about Sony, which initially marketed itself as a camera drone for serious photographers and cinematographers, but these days is really becoming beloved by industrial applications.
CC: Right, and it’s just so easy to fly. I’ve done demos with people who have only ever flown a Mavic. It only takes a flight or two to feel confident with the Airpeak.
DG: You’ve worked with a lot of companies that have come and on, like GoPro and 3D Robotics. Candidly, do you think Sony will make it?
CC: Sony’s Airpeak is filling a void in the drone industry. Look at the DJI Inspire 2, and then look at a heavy lift drone. Sure, the heavy lift carries these Red cameras or bigger cinema cameras, but it’s still kind of a DIY-drone. Then you have the Inspire 2 which is a workhorse, done very well and used in so many productions.
But there’s this void in being able to carry one of the Alpha cameras. There’s never been a good drone that could hold the Alpha camera while giving the integration in controls to the pilot’s fingertips.
The ability to hold the Alpha in a mid-size, heavy-lift package is a game changer.
Every drone manufacturer has its own offering, but no other drone has the integration that Sony has between the Alpha camera and the pilot. The best experience is when the camera feels like it’s in your hand when you’re actually flying it, and that’s exactly how it feels when you fly the Airpeak.
The Sony Airpeak S1 drone is available now, starting at $9,000. Enjoyed my interview with Craig Coker? Next up, read my full review of the Sony Airpeak drone here.
The post Craig Coker: this guy has the coolest job (and some of the biggest influence) in drones appeared first on The Drone Girl.