How do you log nearly 4,000 flight hours in eight years? Get a dream job. Scratch that. Get three dream jobs. That was the approach Nicole Bonk took, at least.
Bonk currently works as the Head of Flight Testing & Software Program Manager at Skydio, which makes autonomous, crash-proof drones including its latest Skydio 2 drone. Skydio has been one of the hottest companies in the drone industry as of late for a number of reasons including that it provides optimism that DJI might finally have a worthy competitor, that its follow-me tech is unparalleled, and that it’s an American drone company.
Prior to joining Skydio, Bonk spent two years as a Flight Test Engineer and Flight Validation Lead at GoPro, which at one point attempted making its own drone, Karma. Before that, she spent two years at Google X as a Flight Test Engineer.
All that to say, Nicole Bonk has a pretty impressive history, as discovered in my Q&A with her. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and style.
Drone Girl: You’ve logged nearly 4,000 hours of flight time. That’s roughly 2 hours everyday over your 8-year career. My one-word question: how?!?
Nicole Bonk: Starting off at Google Project Wing we would log ~20hrs a day with multiple drones up in the air so a lot of my time came early on in my career. As I transitioned to GoPro, it tapered off to a steady pace with outdoor testing 4 out of the 5 days a week, validating new software or hardware.
DG: With all that flying, what does an average day in your life look like?
NB: Oh gosh, my day changes depending on where we are at in the company and the initiative we are working towards. Right now, I’m managing a team of flight test & mobile engineers.
Some days I’m developing test plans, going out to the field to execute the tests, and reporting back on results. Other days I’m trying to track down specific failures in the system. This is why I love my job! No day is the same and it is never a 9-5 desk job.
DG: A lot of people see flying drones as a fun activity…and could only dream of turning it into a career. When flying drones is your career, is it still that “fun activity”?
NB: It’s still fun but for me it still ends up being work. Like, if I find a bug when flying the Skydio, then my fun just becomes work. I will say, flying RC planes is still fun for me though.
DG: You have a bachelor’s degree in drones. Not a lot of people can say that. What was your program like, and was there anything unexpected in your curriculum?
NB: My degree is a Bachelor of Science in Unmanned Aircraft Systems – Pilot Track at Embry-Riddle (ERAU). The coursework covered aeronautical science, unmanned aircraft systems, computer science, robotics, mission planning & execution, sensor payloads, and data collection and processing. The curriculum set me up with the necessary knowledge I needed for my career.
DG: And did you know you would become a drone pilot upon signing up for that degree?
NB: The nice aspect about my degree was it gave you a taste of what it would be like to fly small, medium, and large drones and also all of the different career options available through the coursework that I completed. I appreciated this because at the end of my time at Embry-Riddle even though I loved flying the large UAS simulators, I knew I didn’t want to do that as a full time job.
DG: How does Embry-Riddle’s drone-specific coursework differ from someone studying in a more traditional field, like piloted flight?
NB: In the more traditional pilot track, also known as Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle, you learn more about jet transport systems, meteorology, crew resource management. Basically the degree is tailored to a Commercial Pilot.
DG: That’s interesting!
NB: The UAS coursework is tailored to more of the unmanned systems side. The nice thing about my degree was that I still got to get all of my pilot certifications so I am Commercial Multi and Instrument rated.
DG: What was the best class you took?
NB: The UAS flight simulation class. You got paired up with a partner for the entire semester and got to switch off between being the Pilot in Command and Visual Observer. The class was focused on specific missions using a large UAS system similar to a Global Hawk.
DG: Wow. Would you recommend other aspiring drone pilots take a similar career path and study drones in college?
NB: I wouldn’t say studying UAS in college is a must. Any engineering degree that works with hardware should give you applicable knowledge whether that be Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, or Electrical Engineering. I would say that taking similar coursework on Unmanned Aircraft, joining an extracurricular club for UAS, or completing an internship in the field would set you up for success.
DG: You’ve worked at 3 major drone-related tech companies in Silicon Valley. What was one big takeaway from each one? Maybe let’s start at Google X (now known as Wing).
NB: Working at Google Project Wing, I learned how to put my education into fruition — whether that was designing test plans or understanding system level components and the effects on full system functionality. I also learned the structure of organization and the importance of communication.
DG: And GoPro?
Working at GoPro I learned all about the Consumer Product market (different hardware lifecycle stages, fast paced environment, adapting and testing to changes).
DG: Now you’re at Skydio. How does that compare?
NB: Currently at Skydio my biggest takeaway thus far was learning how to test an autonomous drone system. This was different from my previous testing experience in the past and learning the complexity of the system and how to properly test it was an awesome challenge.
DG: You are awesome, and certainly have a dream job! Thanks for making the time to chat with me! And where can we find you?
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