Jennifer Pidgen is a controlling partner for a company that produces training programs and events including a popular UAV night flight course

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I am a transplanted Canadian from Southern Ontario, now living in Las Vegas, Nevada.  After 14 years working full time in the Canadian professional photo/video industry, and going to school part time, I completed my finance/accounting degree and was ready for the next big adventure in my life.  While I had never dreamed of moving to the states, the timing and opportunities were appealing to my new husband and I, and we ultimately took the leap!  It has been an enormous change, but one that has offered many new exciting opportunities that I wouldn’t have imagined of only a few years ago.

Ever since I can remember, I asked “why” and “how”.  Questioning, learning, and problem solving are innate to me.  I have always had interest in sciences and mathematics and I was (am?!) a tomboy to boot.  I attended the Ontario Science Centre Science School for my last semester of high school, spent a couple of years studying engineering and ultimately made my way into the corporate world working in marketing.  I love technology and the opportunities that come with it.  My path has been a fascinating, unexpected one and because of my varied background in science, math, and marketing, I’ve found myself in a remarkable point in my career as my experience, my education, and my passions are put to work within the sUAS (small Unmanned Aerial Systems) industry.   

How did you get started in the drone industry?

My first experience with a drone or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) was in 2013 when the company I was working for in Canada considered reselling drones.  As the marketing head at the time, I remember thinking to myself: “This is the wave…how do we get involved?”  Unfortunately, the mass-marketed drones available at the time were not robust enough for our clientele and we were not ready to invest in larger platforms able to carry professional photo/video gear.   In 2014 I started working with Sundance Media Group as they transitioned from offering training for video/photo/audio into training for UAV/sUAS.  I personally bought my first UAV (a 3DR solo) in 2015, became involved with local UAV training (Humber College) and meetup groups in Southern Ontario and haven’t looked back.

The UAV industry offers a perfect marriage of science and business for me.  It wasn’t long before I realized that this new technology is a powerful tool for many businesses across many industries and verticals.  With any new technology, there is misinformation, apprehension, and hesitation to adapt, and I quickly found myself translating the adaptation of UAV/sUAS as a tool for businesses into cost efficiencies and risk reductions.   Over the past two years I have worked closely with entrepreneurs looking to become a Drone Service Provider (DSP), public service agencies, and large organizations looking to implement UAV/sUAS into their workflow.  Working within the wave of “UAVs as a tool”, understanding the regulatory environment (both in Canada and in the US) and working with various organizations to better understand their specific needs for training and here I am, now fully committed to riding this exciting wave, learning and growing as this burgeoning industry continues to take shape.

Tell us about your organization and your role there.

Sundance Media Group, LLC (SMG) has been producing training events for nearly 20 years.  Instructors from SMG have taught, presented workshops, and have participated in technology panels worldwide.  The original founder, Douglas Spotted Eagle, has a decades-long history of aviation, from the world of fast-action videography in skydiving to commercial application of drone/UAV use.  It’s from this solid base of education and aviation that SMG moved forward to incorporate its years of experience for best-practices training into the world of UAV use.    We’ve been training for UAV use, under various verticals, for the past 6 years.  In the past couple of years, the UAV industry has shifted to see “UAV as a tool” and SMG has evolved beyond a focus of UAV Cinematography, to more focused training for public service/First-Responder applications, inspection, construction/BIM, and mapping/surveying.  Our UAV training philosophy, no matter the vertical, concentrates on creating a culture of safety and risk management.

My role as COO is quite varied within the company, which is one of the reasons I love it as much as I do.   (It’s also one of the reasons I use the acronym COO to represent Creator of Opportunities.)  As the COO, not only am I dealing with the daily operations of the company, I am dedicated to developing our sUAS/UAV training programs and fostering industry partnerships.  With my years of marketing experience, I also manage any of our large-scale training events and specialty workshops; I’ve also taken to contracting my UAV event coordination services to third parties as a turn-key solution for those lacking UAV industry experience.

Most deeply involved with the risk mitigation for UAV operations, my role also includes assisting our clients with their Policy/Procedures and other safety documentation.  (Checklists, operations manuals, logbook requirements, and other risk mitigation processes.)  Each of SMG’s instructors are focused on building a strong foundation of best-practices for each of our client’s UAV crewmembers.

“UAV as a tool” can be an intimidating concept to many organizations new to the concept; I welcome the challenge of explaining.  I am extremely adept at finding the connections between different UAV/sUAS offerings and finding ways to work with organizations to build out their unique UAV/sUAS program.  My resourcefulness in finding unique ways for UAV/sUAS program implementation has come in quite handy as every business we’ve worked with has different needs. Ultimately, my role with SMG is about creating opportunities and building deep relationships within the UAV/sUAS community, locally, nationally, and abroad.  (And YES – I love to fly!)

Industry Experience:

What do you like most about being in the UAV industry?   

My enthusiasm boils down to the exciting pace of technological application of UAVs.  In a very short time, we’ve moved from “toys” to “tools” in the UAV industry and that continues to evolve daily and it is influencing many different areas of our world.  Construction sites, public servants (police, fire, first responders), agriculture, cinematographers, photographers, realtors, journalists, inspections (which has its own verticals!), and the list grows daily!  I love that I continue to learn as I keep up with UAV/sUAS technologies and how they can best be applied to everyday workflows; increasing safety, reducing risk, cost, and personnel resources.

And YES – it’s incredible to be able to spend an entire day training out in the field.  It’s the best upside to the typical desk job!  Flying is inspiring and fun!

What’s your favorite type of project and why?

My favourite type of projects are the practical UAV flight workshops we offer.  It’s the opportunity to put UAV technology into the hands of the client and watch as they relish that first moment of UAV flight.  It’s gratifying to see light bulbs go off over the course of our workshops as new UAV pilots begin to better understand the nuances of UAV flight.  Even when we work with more advanced UAV pilots, the ultimate goal is to give them a repeatable flight technique; one that breaks down the steps of UAV flight methods into bits that are more easily practiced and ultimately mastered.   It’s incredibly rewarding to see the advanced pilots recognize that our UAV flight instruction is beneficial to their overall level of expertise.

[And selfishly, I have to say I really do love working with my husband within the same industry.  Together we are a remarkable team as our individual strengths often offset our weaknesses.  It’s a mini think tank environment in our office all the time!  We are always scheming the next big project!]

Do you have a success story you would like to share?

That’s a tough one; it’s been a busy few years for us and we’ve had so many interesting projects!   That said, I think our biggest success story was our recent Night UAV Flight workshop hosted during NAB 2017.  It was the first of its kind, nationally, as a large scale, best-practices night UAV flight training workshop.   We maxed out our attendance, which was well beyond our expectations at the start.  The workshop consisted of a comprehensive three-hour theory (in-class) session, after which a test was given to ensure that the attendees had absorbed the material.  We then boarded a bus and made our way out to the field for three hours of practical instruction.   It was truly an amalgamation of incredible instructors, assistants, volunteers, and sponsors.   

Admittedly, those of us organizing the event were a little nervous with the idea of having multiple aircraft flying at night (again – this was the first time at this scale for us!).  In order to mitigate the risk, we prepped a great deal for the practical portion of the workshop.  Safety protocols, emergency procedures/communications, and ensuring that our students and equipment were safe over all else.  FoxFury Lighting was a big part of our safety setup as they provided their multiple red utility lights for each of our three workstations.   Even more incredible was the setup of their amazing LED area lights in the field where we lit up Seven Magic Mountains as a point of interest for the UAV pilots to fly to, and ultimately around.  With safety in mind, we very nearly had to call off the practical portion of the workshop due to weather, but thankfully the attendees were patient and the weather (WIND!) calmed.

In the end, all the pieces came together perfectly and we successfully trained over 30 attendees with three Yuneec Typhoon H’s equipped with LumeCube instruments.  Our attendees have had nothing but positive feedback over the event; although they would have enjoyed to fly more!  (Don’t we all though!?)

SMG has organized another Night UAV Flight Workshop to take place after InterDrone 2017, on Saturday, September 9th.  Early bird pricing if your readers sign up before August 11!  Join us!

What excites you most about the potential for women in the industry?

As a woman with a science and technology background, there have been many daunting obstacles as science and technology is not a traditional place for women (there were 5 females in my first year engineering class of nearly 500!), but the UAV industry is different.  The UAV industry is not a traditional industry because it is in its infancy and being founded by pioneers of UAV.  Yes, there is a science being applied and technology that is fast-moving, but the applications for UAV reach far and beyond traditional roles.  It’s the perfect combination really for all generations of women.  This is exciting!

So, what excites me most?  It’s the fact that the potential for women within the UAV industry is ripe for the picking.  It doesn’t really matter what your background education is, nor what your work experience is.  I’ve seen so many different applications of UAV/sUAS; it really is available to anyone willing to roll up her sleeves, work hard at learning how best to get involved, and soaring with the idea.

What You’ve Learned:

What has been your most significant “lightbulb” moment since you entered the industry? 

I never thought I’d call the state of Nevada home, but that it has become.  There is so much interest and support for UAV/sUAS here and we can fly year round!  It is precisely why I have had the luxury of being exposed to so many verticals looking to use “UAV as a tool”.  I believe the most significant “lightbulb” moment was realizing just how much efficiency a UAV/sUAS can bring to a construction site.    While this was something that theoretically made sense, it wasn’t until about 4 months ago when we were on an actual, active construction site.  Within minutes we were able to fly the site, with a grid, and capture the site under construction.  Once back at the office, we assembled those images to create a 2D (and eventually a 3D) map of the overall site, which we overlaid the actual site plans.  When that happened, it all snapped into place!    

We noticed a discrepancy in the actual site build from the site drawings:  There was a pipe run in the foundation pour that was off by six inches. (A sewer vent at that!) When we shared this information with the construction company, they immediately appreciated the value in the “As-Designed/As-Built” process.   By discovering the problem prior to framing the house, they realized great cost savings.   When we returned two days later the pipe run had been hammered out and moved to the correct location.  This was a smaller job site with a home being built.  Imaging the affect this technology and new workflow would have on larger scale projects?  It was a WOW moment!

There is no doubt that this is one vertical where small errors can cost hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars.  (Imaging the cost of digging into a finished foundation and framed home to fix the sewer vent!)   Finding these errors early on in the construction cycle is key; and it does not take a lot of time or energy to make happen.  Sure, it’s another step in the overall workflow, but the elevated efficiency and the reduction in overall costs; remarkable.

With a quick flight using a mapping/surveying grid pattern, intelligent job sites using UAV as a tool are reaping the benefits across all the stages of construction.  (Pre-construction stage, construction stage, post-construction stage and even ongoing safety maintenance.)  Within each stage, engineers, architects, and construction workers have a live daily/weekly aerial visual of the build.     This is better known, within this vertical, as Building Information modeling, a deep component of the construction process: “a process involving the generation and management of digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of places.”  It’s truly revolutionary and it was incredible to see the effects of data/information first hand.  It is exciting and it’s really only the tip of the iceberg.  Imagine the possibilities with data point clouds and thermal imaging on job sites or inspecting for maintenance of new builds.  It’s incredible.  “UAV as a tool” is reshaping traditional industries and I love being a part of it.

What have you learned you wish you had known when you got started?

Absorbing what’s happening within the currently growing and ever evolving UAV/sUAS industry is like drinking from a fire hose.  You just cannot grasp it all.  That is OKAY.  Take the time you need to zero in on an area that speaks to your background or passions.  Engage within communities and lean on them for answers to questions.  There are a lot of pioneers out there willing to share their experiences (good and bad!) and help you on your path to success.   Don’t be afraid to ask questions (even if they sound silly) or try new techniques out in the field.  You never know what you might learn!

Is there a tip you learned you would like to share with other women in the industry?

Flying UAVs is a LOT of fun.  Exploiting the data from them is empowering.  Whatever your background is, educationally or experientially, there IS an application for “UAV as a tool”.  Find it and fly with that purpose in mind.  Don’t be afraid to be a trailblazer, but also learn from those within the community already.

Build your network of industry professionals that you trust and can brainstorm with.    As a woman (and there are many documented studies on this) we are less likely to lean on our peers.  I am actually guilty of this too….it really is NOT my nature to “lean in”.  If you haven’t seen it, watch the Ted Talk by Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) (or the follow up Ted Talk).  Inspiring for many (if not all!) women in the workforce.  Lean into situations that might make you uncomfortable; it’s the path to growth and ingraining yourself within this burgeoning industry.  Yes, if you take the risk, likelihood of making a mistake, looking foolish, gasp, CRASHING, is high.  So what?  Lean into it and learn from it and build up your experience and SHARE that with others within your community.  Do NOT underestimate your abilities.


What’s the best way for W&D readers to connect with you?
Facebook:  SundanceMediaGroup
Twitter:  @SundanceMedia

The Final Word:

Is there anything else you would like to share with the Women and Drones Community?

The rest of 2017 is a busy one for Sundance Media Group and we hope to connect with you at one of the events we’ll be at, because building the UAV community is important to SMG.  Better yet, reach out, say hello and let us know how we might be able to work with you.  We are always looking to expand our skylines (apologies for the pun, I couldn’t help myself!).

We’ll next be at InterDrone 2017 in September.  And yes!  I’ll be at the Women And Drones luncheon once again.  We will also be busy with the sessions we are offering, an intensive the day before, sessions during, demonstrations with the Nevada Highway Patrol and we’ll follow up the show with our next Night UAV flight course.  In October, we will feature UAV workshops at NAB NY2017, a live demonstration at Commercial UAV Expo, and an intensive workshop and introductory UAV sessions at PhotoPlus Expo.  We will then be featured at the National Drone Show (part of Government Expo) in Washington, DC in November.

Please – reach out, say hello.  Join the community and fly safe!

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