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Meet Trailblazer, Carmaine Means–Drone Pilot Journalist and Co-founder

Carmaine Means is the first person I ever spoke with a job as a drone pilot. After the first few minutes of our conversation, I discovered Carmaine is a true trailblazer in the drone pilot field. In 2017, she became the first licensed female African-American drone pilot in the country!

Already an Emmy-winning 15 year photo journalist for CBS News (first she worked at the local O & O in Chicago and now she is working for the network in Los Angeles bureau), Carmaine loved “tinkering” with technology—but she loved photography more.

The closer Means could get a “birds-eye view” of what she photographed, the more interesting aerial photography became.

“Being in command of the camera every day means, I can tell a story everyday” said Means. Her love of story-telling quickly became the driving force for pursuing a career in photojournalism. While studying cinematography and photography at Columbia College in Chicago, Carmaine attended a workshop with the National Press Photographers Association and the rest, as they say is history.

Soon after her career began, Carmaine was hired in 2005, as a news photojournalist for WLS-TV, ABC 7 in Chicago.

At the beginning of the holiday season in 2014 Carmaine was asked to film a studio segment about “Christmas’ hottest new toys” one of which was a DJI Phantom drone with a separate GoPro camera. Shortly after the segment had aired, Carmaine kept looking at drones as well as the advancements in drone technology, wanting to learn more about how they worked, but the industry was not ready for her—yet.

In 2014 and 2015, millions of drones were sold, and, there were hundreds if not thousands of crashes from people, hobbyist and commercial operators who wanted to make money as drone pilots. So the FAA stepped in to put regulations in place, which brought the drone industry to a grinding halt. While the regulatory standards were in development, Carmaine did not wait for education to catch up. As it turned out, she had the perfect background for the job, so Means decided to teach herself.

It just so happened, that prior to graduating from Columbia College with a degree in photojournalism Means started collegiate career in Atlanta, Ga. wanting to pursue a career in sports medicine. One of the courses she enjoyed most was physics (a key knowledge and skill area for drone pilots).  With the physics knowledge and photography skills already in hand, Carmaine realized becoming a drone pilot would be a natural next step, and hit the books.

Through a lot of self-directed reading and education, Carmaine studied the necessary print materials while practicing flying her rigs to obtain her FAA Part 107 certification. As soon as the FAA past regulation for the Part 107 certification exam, Carmaine took the test and became the first African-American woman in the country with a drone pilot’s license in early September of 2016.

Soon after receiving her pilot’s license, CBS, WBBM-TV asked Carmaine (the first broadcast news organization to incorporate drone footage as an interval part of their daily news coverage), to help develop their drone program. At the same time, Carmaine and best friend and serial entrepreneur, Mika Stambaugh and founder of TMI, became co-founders of Drone Girl Photography, which she also helps to manage, respectfully.

The technology for drones includes various levels of customization, which means Carmaine is able to adjust the drone settings, to operate in a certain way that is patterned after the way her hands and brain work together, making piloting her own drone a customized experience. She likened the experience to wearing a favorite pair of shoes.

As co-founder of Drone Girl Photographyy, Carmaine’s business is in the works of expanding. She is excited about inquiries on potential projects that are sent to her (real estate, corporate video and cinematography) but is hungry for her role as a drone pilot to serve a larger purpose.

“What I am really excited about is understanding the advancement of the human brain and human beings. The data you can collect from a drone that flies into in the middle of a fire, or assesses safety concerns on a construction project, can save lives!”

When I heard the connection to data and safety, I had a “dot-connection moment.”

A thought popped in my head that Carmaine shared about growing up as an athlete (she was a basketball player in high school and college).

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Carmaine to look into the future of her career in drone technology, and for her thoughts on how drone technology could make a difference in other industries.

After thinking about it for a moment, she shared that, from her point of view, there are lots of opportunities and at the same time, challenges. “I see opportunities to transform both the education industry and the sports industry. Generating a constant flow of education and awareness about the value and impact drone technology can have on people’s lives is still missing for the general public.

When I asked Carmaine for examples, she immediately began talking about potential ways of marrying the data gathered from the energy, force and momentum exerted by athletes on the field, drone technology with kinesthesiology, to be able gain more intelligence about sports injuries, and also to provide a preventative injury measures for athletes, physical therapist and orthopedic specialist. Carmaine also mentioned, making education about drones more easily accessible to all children—even in rural areas. “The power and applications for drone technology are endless” said Means. We have an unprecedented opportunity to transform what the data and technology can do for us as human beings!  It sounds like Carmaine Means will be blazing new trails for years to come.


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