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Interview Nolwenn Chauché

Can you introduce yourself to our community in a few words?

 

I have been sailing in the polar regions, and in Greenland in particular, for more than 10 years now. During these trips, I participated in, carried out and coordinated scientific missions with the aim of understanding the interaction of glaciers and icebergs with the ocean that surrounds them.

I had the opportunity, as part of a doctoral thesis, to spend 15 months in Uummannaq Bay, on the west coast of Greenland, including the winter with the sailing boat intentionally trapped in an ice field, which allowed me to better understand Inuit culture. What’s more, over the past 4 years with Access Arctic, I have organised and carried out, with Pauline, my wife, cruises for tourists to discover landscapes, fauna and flora as well as Greenlandic culture.

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Why did you choose to use a drone to shoot your polar expeditions?

In Greenland, the landscapes are sumptuous, often aerial, with unusual colour contrasts. At first, when I took my camera out, I was often annoyed because I couldn’t get these vast landscapes into the frame, even with a wide-angle lens.

What I wanted then was to capture these helicopter images in documentaries like BBC’s Frozen Planet with unbelievable perspectives that bring out, among other things, the turquoise vision of the submerged keel of icebergs. In our scientific research, I had the opportunity to use drones. Their manoeuvrability, low cost of use and the incredible possibilities in terms of image that opened up to me was a revelation! Since then, I regularly fly over our sailing boat, glaciers, icebergs or whales, which adds an extra dimension to our passengers’ discovery of Greenland.

 

Can you tell us about your first flying experience in Greenland?

 

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My first flying experience was very emotional. It was with a Bebop 1, in July 2015. After a few start-up tests over the mainland, I quickly wanted to fly over icebergs several hundred meters wide and dozens of meters high that pile up at the outlet of Ilulissat Icefjord, classified as a UNESCO world heritage site. My dream flight: flying over our sailing boat with these huge, (nearly) stationary icebergs as a backdrop. Because of the polar summer, I chose to do this around 11 pm when the ‘sunset’ light was the most photogenic. We then brought our sailing boat to the foot of these giants.  

I prepared for takeoff by going to the only part of the boat with a little space for an ‘aero-drone’. At the slightest contact of the propellers with a mast shroud (cable), the Bebop’s propellers would have stopped, and the drone would have made a majestic splash. At the controls of my Skycontroller, a little nervous, I then made the Bebop take off and managed to hover a few metres from the boat, away from the cables and other ropes. Phew! The hardest part was over… And then, out of the blue, the drone rolled over and dived like an Arctic Tern into the water!? Splash. No more drone!

After several discussions with the Parrot team, we came to the conclusion that this was due to interference between the North Pole’s magnetic field (which is weaker near the pole than in the rest of the world) and that produced by the alternator of the boat’s engine. Since then we have learned a few tricks to avoid this situation, and I have been able to make dozens of flights over the water taking off and landing on the boat with the Bebop 1 and especially the Bebop 2, which is even more stable and autonomous. In the end I was able to get the shot I dreamed of with the bonus of a humpback whale and its calf in the frame. Magical!

 

Why did you choose a Parrot Bebop 2 drone? What do you think its main strengths are?

 

I chose the Parrot Bebop 2 because of several parameters. On the one hand, I like the idea of supporting a French high-tech company.

Then, although there are very professional versions of the drone, I sometimes find that it’s at the expense of essential elements. With Parrot drones, I appreciate the work they have done to make the Bebop 2 easy to handle and control, as well as the quality of the image stabilisation. All this with a light, compact drone at a price that’s affordable for the general public. The mix of simplicity and performance, at an affordable price, was clearly a major factor in my choice.

 

Do you prefer manual piloting or fully automated flight?

 

I like the fully automated flight with Flight Plan, which I often use when I am in France to map forests or agricultural fields. In Greenland, however, the icebergs or whales I’m trying to fly over are not shown on Flight Plan’s satellite images 😉 so I use manual piloting with a Skycontroller, a tablet and the shade screen, which helps me get beautiful shots with uniform tracking that are pleasant to look at.

However, I really appreciate the ‘return home’ function which allows me to quickly bring the drone back to the sailing boat when it’s a bit far away before taking control again for a soft landing on our mini aero-drone (1.5 m x 1.5 m surrounded by cables, except on one side!). This requires a little practice, especially since the boat is never 100% still.

 

What are your best memories of flying with your drone?

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My best memories of flying, it’s probably Pauline who could guess them when she sees me with sparkling eyes as I look up from the tablet! To name just a few, there was the day when we first saw the bowhead whales of Greenland (only present in spring on the west coast of Greenland, then they leave for Canada for the summer). The sea was completely calm. We had three whales 200-300 m from us, with 200 m. between them. I took off to fly over one. As I was closing in, it started diving and I finally saw its tail come out of the water beautifully, in the middle of the frame. Fantastic! I still had at least 15 minutes of battery life left, and this whale wouldn’t come back up for several more. I decided to go towards the second. I frame it with the sailing boat in the background, and bingo, beautifully, it dived perfectly in the middle of the frame. Even more amazing! Still 10 minutes left of possible flight, I then go towards the third. I approach it from the rear, a few meters above the water, and there, clearly, I see its body undulating, bending and the tail coming out a few meters from the drone. The perfect shot! In less than 10 minutes, in one flight, I had taken three magnificent shots of a whale’s tail. I couldn’t have imagined it was possible!

Another incredible moment was when I flew over a glacier front. I wanted to see this unique perspective when you’re looking straight at the front and you have 100-120 metres of ice on one side and the sea with icebergs floating in it on the other. For safety reasons, we kept the boat quite far from the glacier. So, I flew full throttle to the glacier, almost 2 km from me, to have as much time as possible to film at the location. And then, when I got close to the glacier, right in the middle of my frame, a piece of the glacier collapsed and smashed up 120 m below. You could even see the little pieces bouncing off each other in the spray. All in a uniform tracking shot. If I wanted to do it, I couldn’t have!

It’s true that there’s a bit of luck in these shots, but the ease with which I can get my Bebop 2 off the ground and its reliability makes me try harder and harder shots every time, and, in the end, it pays off, especially when nature adds its share of improvisation.

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What changes would you like to see on future Parrot drones?

 

Hmm, tough question. With my engineering mind, I sometimes want to adapt everyone around me, not just the Bebop. For the Bebop 2, I think the feature that would be most useful to me is a video with more acutance. The possibility of having a wide-angle view for flying with a smaller field of vision in the middle for the film would be a plus for flying, but also for flawless framing.

In the case of ‘out of the box’ use, I would also like to have the possibility of having a structure making it possible to carry another camera on the belly of the Bebop 2.

Options such as the last known position of the drone (in case of an unexpected crash) or the smooth vertical tracking are changes that I was looking forward to and that came with the latest update. Now I’m thrilled!

Perhaps some ergonomic features when preparing a Flight Plan, such as the ability to make a semi-circle around a point (as if you had a Disco wing) or to change the speed and/or altitude for an entire flight plan in one click would be convenient.

I do, however, miss Time-Lapse mode in manual piloting because I used it very often when reconstructing icebergs in 3D. It is now only present in Flight Plan, and I think that’s unfortunate.

 

Have you ever considered using the drone in your scientific research activities?

 

Not only have I considered using the Bebop 2 for scientific research, I have also done it! In the summer of 2017, we did a mission for an American university that consisted of reconstructing several icebergs in 3D using images taken from several different points of view. We had tried going around the iceberg in a boat, but it quickly became obvious that the best way, in order to really reconstruct each piece of the iceberg with no ‘shadow’ area, was to use the drone. We flew over a dozen icebergs several times in a row, sometimes a few days apart. The reconstruction was rather successful and with a good rendering. The data are currently being analysed.

I also work on reconstruction projects in 3D or cartographic view (orthophoto) of forests in France to help with silviculture (identification of species, evaluation of tree height, identification of regeneration areas, etc.). You don’t always need a pro drone to run tests on a personal scale.

To find out more about Nolwen.

 

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