Meet the woman who uses a drone to map the old Wild West
Monarch Inc. just launched a project to aerially survey and 3D map the 19th-century mining town of Bodie, California, and original California Gold Rush town that was the vibrant gem of the Wild West and now is kept in a state of ‘arrested decay.’ Monarch used high precision UAVs to help preserve data about the historic town, using the company’s custom-built drone and 3D-printed gimbal. We spoke with Eileen Shibley, the founder of Monarch Inc.
Drone Girl: How did you get into drones?
Eileen Shibley: 5 or 7 years before I retired from defense, I was selected to run the unmanned systems division at the navy’s premiere manufacturing site for drone integration in defense. We worked with every size drone – from teeny ones to the Predator. That’s when I became aware that I had devoted my career to defense, but when I retired I truly wanted to make a difference. I thought, I know what these things are capable of. I know these things can make a huge difference win the way we do things.
DG: And then?
ES: I led the California delegation to try to get California named as (one of the six drone) test sites. I was barely retired and I was asked to lead this delegation. I thought I should give something back since I’ve gotten so much from this community. When we weren’t selected, I figured, what am I going to do now?
DG: So now you’re mapping the old western town of Bodie.
ES: Bodie Stegosaurus Park — it was one of those thriving places in the 1880s. It became a huge thriving metropolis in no time at all. But now it’s old, it’s decaying. The state has made it a state park and they’re trying to preserve it. They put a request in to the FAA that Monarch be allowed to take our drone to Bodie and map it for them.
DG: So how did they find you?
ES: About a year and a half ago we were at a photogrammetry conference. We met a guy whose background is in GIS. He’s a visionary and he was thinking that for some of the state parks it would be a perfect use of drone technology to map these state parks. He asked if we would be willing to come up and do a demo.
DG: What was the demo?
ES: We had a job to map a couple wineries in Napa Valley. We called him and said we would be in his neck of the woods, so he invited us over to a state park called Prairie City. He said, “Holy cow, I think you guys might be the company for me.”
DG: Why was he looking for aerial photos?
ES: When you get an aerial perspective of something, you have a much different view. From a State Park perspective, you can not only get beautiful photography but you can also use near infrared sensors to learn about vegetation, animal habitats, and you can look for certain types of animal and plant life with different types of sensors on the drone.
DG: And Bodie specifically?
ES: At Bodie they were looking for a complete mapping of all of the existing structures. They’re looking to record for historical purposes all the current buildings at Bodie. They don’t know how long all of those buildings are going to last. Camera technology has changed so rapidly in the last 5 years that they can map things now that weren’t available years ago.
DG: From a business perspective, are you more focused on selling your products or selling the data you are able to gather?
ES: Our business model includes both. We have customers who really want to autonomy. They don’t want to be dependent on someone else’s schedule. They want to make sure they can map it precisely 14 days later. We have other customers who don’t want to learn how to fly this thing. They just want the data.
DG: And since this is part of my series on women in drones, tell me about your experience working as a woman in the industry.
ES: I’ve spent my entire career in the Department of Defense — in a man’s world. I have 3 granddaughters. One of my biggest hopes is that me doing this helps other women know they can do this. There are amazing women throughout this industry. I look at my colleagues. Amazing women who are pilots, engineers, business people. There are women who have such strength and talent to bring to the table.
DG: Are you doing anything specifically to encourage more women in the industry?
ES: I focus a lot on young women to get them interested in math and science. When I worked in defense I had an opportunity to mentor young women. I had some amazing engineers who worked for me. They’re out there. I champion diversity of any kind because that makes us all stronger and better.
DG: People ask me this all the time, so I’ll ask you — what’s the future of this industry?
ES: I think the industry is a nascent industry and it’s blossoming. As it blossoms and evolves it will become more clear. I can tell you right now as people who make these things, the US is lagging.
DG: And once we catch up, what will we use drones for?
ES The mystery in all of this is the data. When you stop and think about it, a drone is a tool for data collection. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s not some surprising, mysterious anything. It’s a mechanical tool for the purpose of collecting data.
DG: What does the evolution of this industry look like to you?
ES: You can look back to the 1920s and look at all these people who made automobiles. ‘Who would want one anyway? I don’t want one in my town because it will scare the horses. And there are no roads,’ people thought. But they made them anyway. And what would we do without them today?