Luisa Winter of Mid-Atlantic Drones: “Never let anyone tell you that it cannot be done”

Never let anyone tell you that it cannot be done. If I had a dime…. I was told more than once that I could not be a pilot, that I could never understand thermography, and that I could not fly in the controlled airspace near Washington DC. I proved all those people wrong, and…… how […]

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Never let anyone tell you that it cannot be done. If I had a dime…. I was told more than once that I could not be a pilot, that I could never understand thermography, and that I could not fly in the controlled airspace near Washington DC. I proved all those people wrong, and…… how dare they!

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luisa Winters.

Luisa Winters is an award-winning drone videographer with more than 30 years of experience in video production. She is also a certified Private Pilot, a Commercial UAV Pilot and co-founder of Mid-Atlantic Drones.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Sure! I was born in Chicago, Illinois and when I was three years old, my whole family moved to the Dominican Republic, which is where I was raised; therefore, my first language is Spanish. I started playing the violin when I was 7 years old, and at 13 became the youngest member of the Dominican Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony of the Dominican Republic.

When I was 18, I returned to the USA and studied music at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. It was here that I met my husband Jery. Jery was a recording arts student and he got me interested in audio and video recording. During school I started using (very primitive) video cameras and recording other students’ recitals.

After graduating and getting married, Jery and I started a business in which we recorded classical concerts and ballet recitals. That quickly developed into creating videos for corporate and broadcast. I had a knack for editing as I never found it to be very different from performing music; rhythm, pacing, conflict and resolution were very much part of the editing process as they were for music performance. So, the artistic skills where easily transferred from one medium to the other.

In 1998 I started teaching Adobe Premiere, and that quickly developed into teaching Photoshop, After Effects, and all other Adobe programs. When the economic trouble of 2008 started, we decided to take our professional lives into a new direction. We closed the business and I started teaching full time. I taught full time for several years, and then the “itch” to edit and produce my own work started gnawing at me, and I went back into production and post production once more.

In 2012 I started flying drones. They were awesome!! A flying tripod!!! I fell in love with flying drones and I loved flying. That led me to getting my Private Pilot’s License. For most people it is the opposite, they fly planes and then fly drones.

In the meantime, I continued teaching part time, flying planes and drones and shooting and editing videos. This led me to creating a company with my friend and colleague, Mike Sobola, called Mid-Atlantic Drones. Today, I divide my time between flying drones and planes, editing the footage and the stills taken with the drones, and teaching Adobe products.

It was a weird way to getting here, but if I had to do it all over again, I would not change a thing!

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Other than being a 56-year-old Hispanic woman flying a drone for a living? There are not too many of us!! I am breaking the stereotype of the drone pilot as being young and male, and I am a minority to boot!

In addition to who I am, let’s talk about what I do. Our company is specializing in more than just “pretty pictures”. While beautiful cinematography is very much at the heart of what we do (Mike has three Emmys!), we have established a niche in construction progress reports and photogrammetry. We are also using Infrared Cameras to inspect Solar Panel installations, and roof inspections.

In addition to those, both Mike Sobola and I specialize in flying in the Flight Restricted Zone near Washington DC (called the “FRZ” or “Freeze”). We have experience keeping safety and regulations in all aspects of our flight mission and have been able to obtain the necessary authorizations to legally fly where others cannot.

Another thing is that we are fast! We deliver our construction projects in less than 24 Hours. The reason we can do that is because of my Dell 5750 Workstation. It is a laptop that gives me a beautiful display, and super-fast render speeds due to the processor, Ram and of course the totally awesome Quadro RTX 3000 with Max-Q Design GPU provided by NVIDIA. I don’t usually mention specific equipment to anyone, but this workstation has been a game-changer! The fact that I can deliver finished product this quicky makes a huge difference. Some of these Orthomosaic maps take 24–48 hours to render in other systems. This Dell Precision 5750 goes through them faster than anything else I have had until now.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh, my goodness!! I have done so many dumb things…. where should I begin?

Not one episode in particular, but (unfortunately for me) several. When I was first starting, drones didn’t have an advanced GPS system to help them get stable. So, if you flew the drone forward and let the controllers go, the drone would continue its forward movement until either stopped by the pilot, or it stopped on its own.

Well, I hate to admit that in more than one occasion, I have hit trees that I could see and knew were there. So, in my classes now the joke is that trees appear out of nowhere, one moment they are not there, and a second later they just materialize, and we cannot help but hit them! Even my grown kids tell me “Mom, watch out for trees” to this day!!

I am happy to announce that the last tree I hit was in 2016!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have been lucky in my life. I have had many mentors and teachers who taught me not just techniques and facts, but how to think and discern for myself. I will list these mentors in order of appearance in my life:

My parents were my first mentors, and through their love and guidance made me aware not just of what’s right and moral, but what would benefit me more; the whole me, not just financially. I never knew limitations and I was always told that I could be whatever I dreamed to be, that my origins or gender would not be an obstacle to success, and they were right.

Second, I had my music teachers; both in the Dominican Republic, and later in the USA. These were caring, talented and extremely accomplished artists that taught me how to think and how to express myself through music. How to fall in love with what I was doing, and how to think and solve problems. Invaluable lessons that I carry in my heart even today!

My husband and kids have also been great sources of inspiration and mentorship. I only heard encouraging words coming from them: “you can do it”, “nothing can stop you”, “we are proud of you”, are words frequently heard in our home.

Next, I have found mentors and inspiration in my friends and colleagues in the industry. I have many. Going to conferences like NAB, Adobe Video World, New York City Drone Film Festival and many others have put me in close contact with artists from all over the world. After several years, these people have become close personal friends. I rely heavily in their advice, mentorship and friendship.

Finally I’d like to thank corporate sponsorships. Companies like Adobe, NVIDIA and Dell, just to name a few. These are huge and important corporations that not only have shown faith in me and my abilities but have also provided me with the means to “be all I could be”. It is important to remain humble and recognize that none of us got here on our own, we had a ton of help on the way, and I am grateful!

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

It depends on what it is that is being disrupted. There are some things that never go out of style. Good storytelling, for example, is timeless. We cannot have a good story without tension, conflict, drama, and then relief and resolution. I find that some of the drone pilots that I have communicated with forget this very simple idea, which is crucial in storytelling. Whenever I see beautiful shots, but all added in a disparate manner, where there is no cohesion or story, I cringe. There has got to be a message that we communicate, there must be a story of some kind.

Other things that have withstood the test of time are the temples of good cinematography, composition, balance, color and exposure, not necessarily in that order.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each

1 — Never let anyone tell you that it cannot be done. If I had a dime…. I was told more than once that I could not be a pilot, that I could never understand thermography, and that I could not fly in the controlled airspace near Washington DC. I proved all those people wrong, and…… how dare they!

2 — Don’t believe in “quality time”, do “quantity time” instead. People believe that they can accomplish skills and technique by practicing with “quality time” only; meaning that they only practice certain techniques but don’t necessarily spend too much time flying. While I believe this to be beneficial, it is not as beneficial as flying many, many hours. I fly almost every day! Of course, I have the luxury of a backyard and I live in uncontrolled airspace. So, if the weather cooperates, and I am home, I am out there flying!

3 — You have the best teacher there is: TV! Watch your TV, premium channels and otherwise, and recognize brilliant examples of cinematography and skill. Emulate that, learn how to get the most out of your equipment. In my case, getting the most of my equipment is easy using my Dell!

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

There are always plans for something new. My husband and I recently bought a travel trailer and plan to travel extensively around the continental US. I am planning on creating these travel videos from what we experience and also acquiring stock footage for sale. This, I think, will be the perfect combination of our love of flying and traveling. I believe my trusty Dell Precision 5750 will be invaluable. The screen is small (15 inches), but it feels like a 17-inch screen. I will be able to shoot during the day and then process all my shots at night using this wonderful workstation.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Where to begin? Almost every time there’s a post online or drone conversation and I chime in, someone feels like they need to explain things to me. Both men and women cannot comprehend that there could possibly be an older Hispanic woman who is an expert on the topic of conversation, so they feel the need to tell me that I don’t understand what I am talking about, and then they proceed to explain. I can’t even call that “mansplaining” because both men and women do it! It’s exhausting!

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Like many people, I am an avid reader. I read everything from philosophy to history. However, my favorite genre is Science Fiction. I especially love the books by Isaac Asimov and read and re-read them often. The way that he story-tells is nothing short of brilliant! I love the clarity of thought and how he expresses it through the written word. It is this clarity of thought that I strive for: clean and uncompromising, without waste, and yet rich and colorful; a true master of the written word. If I could just apply that to my video storytelling, oh, what an accomplishment that would be.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would get more women interested in aviation. To include aviation in STEM would be a homerun for women like me, who were never presented with the idea of flight until later in life. The movement would be something like “Birds of a feather flock together: Women helping women succeed in aviation.”

There are some organizations that already help women succeed in aviation, but not enough. Today only 6% of aviators are women. Simply not enough.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are many, but my favorite is “You are enough”. We try so hard to be more than what we are, to pretend to be more, to know more, to have more skills or more money. And I have learned that what we are, as we are, is enough. We are meant to be who we are, nothing more and nothing less. Believe me, what we are is enough — it is more than enough!

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