January 5, 2017
PreserveCast is where historic preservation meets technology, and this episode features Belinda Kilby of the Maryland-based drone photography and videography company Elevated Element. They have already put their expertise to great use in partnership with Preservation Maryland in documenting Ellicott City, Whites Hall, and other historic sites across the state. You’ll want to listen in and see all the great resulting media embedded in this post.
[Nicholas Redding] Welcome to Preservation Maryland’s PreserveCast. I’m your host, Nick Redding. Since PreserveCast will be focusing in part on how technology intersects with historic preservation, we decided that it might be a good idea to investigate one of the most talked about technologies of our own time, drones. Specifically, drone photography and videography. In early December, I sat down with Belinda Kilby of Elevated Element to discuss not only the ins and outs of operating drones as a hobbyist, but also how drones (along with other developing technologies like laser scanning and 3D modeling) can be combined to provide unique ways of viewing the past, full disclosure. Belinda was recently made a board member here at Preservation Maryland and we’ve worked with her on a number of projects which we will discuss in the interview. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Belinda.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Belinda Kilby has been an artist for as long as she can remember. She earned a B.F.A. from Salisbury University and an art education certification from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. This led her to do her teaching career with the Baltimore City Public Schools for 10 years. In 2010, she began creating drone aerial photography, along her husband, Terry Kilby. Together they started Elevated Element, a company that specializes in unmanned aerial imagery. They also teach others about drones through STEM, maker camps, speaking, and writing books on the topic. Their first title, Drone Art: Baltimore, was the first book shot with unmanned aerial vehicles. The second book is an instructional guide called Make: Getting Started with Drones. Elevated Element is a proven thought leader in the industry, now specializing in processing aerial data for large 2D and 3D interactive maps, and most recently combining aerial cinematography with motion tracked animated 3D renderings to produce virtual fly-throughs of land development projects. And for our purposes, Elevated Elements has also been a proven leader in utilizing drone technology to document historic resources. Today we are joined by Belinda to talk a little bit about the intersection of drones and historic preservation. Hello, Belinda.
[Belinda Kilby] Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
[NR] It’s good to have you here. So we have your background now. We have your education and your career out of the way. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you live now? Where did you grow up?
[BK] Right now I live in Owings Mills, Maryland. When we started the drones venture, we were downtown in Bolton Hill. But when the drones took over our lives, then we moved out to the ‘burbs so we could have a little bit more space. And now that is where our office is, on South Dolfield in Owings Mills. I grew up pretty much all over. I was originally from West Virginia, and my mom joined the Army. I had a single mom. And then I went to elementary school in Germany.
[NR] Wow, so you’ve really been, sort of, all over the place.
[BK] Yeah, pretty much. And then middle school led us to Aberdeen, Maryland, of course, Aberdeen Proving Ground. And from there, Salisbury University. I was on the extended plan, and then 10 years in Baltimore City Schools, and now out in Owings Mills.
Seeing Art And Architecture In A New Way
[NR] So I think when most people think of drones, they think of the tech side. And your husband, Terry, definitely sort of personifies the tech side of that world, but you come at this from the artistic side. And is that really sort of what drew you to the drone technology? Is that what kind of brought you in?
[BK] Absolutely. I actually kind of fought technology for the longest time. I was originally a sculptor and a painter, surrealism, hyperrealism, and was always looking for the next step, the next innovative thing that someone has not done using traditional fine art methods. My artistic statement, really, or vision, had a lot to do with travel, the journey that this life brings us all, whether it be from the journey of a thought process, all the way to planetary movement and plate tectonics, and so forth. So from those early days, towards the end of 2009, when Terry first started building the unmanned aerial vehicles, I actually saw the vehicle itself as a method to, as an original piece of art that was moving throughout space that was actually creating the art itself. And once we got to the elevated perspective then it offered such a mysterious, unique, surreal view that really appealed to me. And it reminded of all of the important art movements of the past that utilized the bird’s eye perspective such as Japanese prints, and Aboriginal art, and Impressionism. And immediately I knew that we needed to be able to carry a better camera.
[NR] So I would say, in the interest of full disclosure to the listeners of PreserveCast, Preservation Maryland has had a pretty great relationship with Elevated Element. And I would say that Elevated Element is a unique company for a variety of different reasons. But I think one of them is what you just outlined that you’re part owner in this business and you come at it from a very different perspective than I think the majority, if not most, drone operators do where I don’t think I’ve ever heard a drone operator talk about Japanese art as their [laughter] — how they see drones working and how they capture the world. And that’s a very different perspective. Have you met any other folks? Is there a big community that looks at drones as a component of art?
[BK] Not too many that I’m aware of. Most of the aerial photographers that I know either came from it from a remote controlled type of background or a straight photography background. So to that extent, yes, then there is an artistic component in photography, of course. But I was immediately drawn to the bird’s-eye perspective because I called myself a surrealist, for a lack of better term, but that elevated perspective looking down is very surreal and kind of mysterious. And it was so new and — it was really another way to capture that –it gave you such a unique idea of what — maybe what God might be looking at as he was looking down. So it was kind of a mysterious, metaphysical —
[NR] So that’s the art side, but obviously this is a business and it has to be run that way. How long have you guys been in business? Tell us a little bit about – how does a drone company stay in business? What is it that you do?
[BK] Well it was really tricky for us initially, and at first it was not a business. It was an art project. It was something to do as a hobby, and to create art, and to drive around and see the area and the state from a whole new point of view of course. And so we needed to do something to be able to sustain our efforts, of course, so we did create the book Drone Art: Baltimore and that was released in 2013. So in 2012, I believe it was BOPA, Baltimore Office of Promotions in the Arts, approached us to do an exhibition at the top of the World Trade Center. And that was after the first newspaper article in the Baltimore Sun about us. They had seen that and wanted to put on the exhibition, and it was a perfect location at the top of the World Trade Center because, of course, you’re looking out the panoramic windows there and you’re seeing exactly what you might see from a drone.
[NR] And for those listeners not from Baltimore, the World Trade Center in Baltimore is a structure that was built in the 1970s and is in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, that some of you may be familiar with, down near a lot of attractions, there’s a lot of foot traffic down in that area.
[BK] Right. So we had a little bit of time leading up to the exhibition, so we knew that we wanted to build up the portfolio of aerial fine art images more. And so that we could create the book and have a launch party at the same time as the exhibition opening.
[NR] So the art that we’re talking about in the book, It’s a lot of architecture, right?
[BK] Yes, of course, architecture and landscape would be probably the number one and number two subject matters in aerial fine art photography.
[NR] Right. So two things near and dear to every preservationist’s heart.
[BK] Of course, yes.
Getting Off the Ground With A Drone Business
[NR] Yeah. Absolutely. so you guys have been in business now for, I mean how long has it actually been a legitimate business that it’s been sort of your sole work everyday?
[BK] Well, we both have taken a leap of faith to leave our careers to be able to do this professionally, full time. I’ve been out of the classroom for three years. And Terry has left his software engineering job about a year and a half ago. And the main factor that enabled us to do this commercially, full time was being able to — basically the regulations to enable commercial use for unmanned aerial vehicles. We were one of the first in the state of Maryland to receive a Section 333 exemption from the FAA. And then, more recently, the Part 107 certification, we have acquired that…
[NR] So now that sounds pretty complex. How difficult was that to get those certifications?
[BK] Right. The 333 is an application process. It’s all documented and written up. Basically, you have procedural policies in your organization where for safe and responsible flight and maintenance, flight logs, and operational strategies for your aircraft, and each aircraft that you intend to fly with commercially.
[NR] So is not, I think, a lot of people think drone, and they think their crazy uncle who got something for Christmas and flew it up in the backyard yard, and got it stuck in a tree, or something. Elevated Element is not that. Obviously, flight logs– crazy Uncle George probably doesn’t have flight logs and some things like that.
[BK] Yeah. Absolutely. We take this extremely seriously. There was a huge learning curve to it, and we’re learning every single day. There’s always new technology and advances in the technology that are coming out basically on an almost daily basis, so rapidly, so–
[NR] And speaking of the technology, I mean, how many drones does Elevated Element have?
[BK] Currently we have probably about a dozen–
[NR] Wow. And these aren’t cheap.
[BK] No, no.
[NR] I mean, what’s an average price on a drone?
[BK] It depends on the type of aircraft that you’re talking about. Every application or purpose for the drone would require a different type of aircraft, so — [exchange] Video versus high-def photography versus some other types of things…Sure, sport flying versus infrastructure inspection. The list goes on and on at this point.
[NR] Right. So it’s not cheap to get into this field, to start…
[BK] No, no. The average for us at this point, especially with a two-person operation team – so you’re talking about dual controllers, dual tablets, that type of thing – I’m going to just round it off at 5,000.
Using Drones In Historic Preservation by Documenting Ellicott City After the Flood
[NR] Wow. So for the purposes of PreserveCast, what’s the intersection with historic preservation? Have you guys gotten involved in historic preservation?
[BK] Absolutely. We’re really so excited and honored to be a part of it, and to be able to join the past with the future, and cutting-edge technology. I’ll give you an example. Two of our favorite projects, of course, after the devastating flood of Ellicott City, historic Ellicott City, it was just heartbreaking, and so we were able to help assist — create a 3D model of historic downtown Ellicott City, by flying over in an autonomous pattern, a grid-like pattern overhead, to capture aerial data, but then we also flew at low elevations, to be able to get the facades of the buildings. And we were really fortunate to work with Direct Dimensions, who is our business neighbor, in Owings Mills. They’re an incredible company that is…
[NR] I think we’re probably going to have them on in the future, I hope, so–
[BK] I hope you do. Michael Raphael is fantastic. And they are really the – I like to call them the world’s leader, and I truly believe that, in laser scanning technology. So when you can combine terrestrial laser scan data with aerial photogrammetry data, that’s when some real magic can happen, and you can just get extremely accurate and realistic 3D models.
[NR] Yeah. And Preservation Maryland has been lucky. It was sort of a leading question. We knew that Elevated Element was involved in historic preservation and we were pretty involved in that Ellicott City effort, and I think it’s interesting. I think a lot of people – when you describe what you did, it sounds like it would have taken weeks to do something like that, but you and Terry came out and did it in a half a day, maybe. I mean, it’s obviously a skillset but the technology goes pretty quick. I mean, you’re able to do something like that pretty quick. We scanned almost an entire historic district in the matter of a few hours.
[BK] That’s right. We did go out one other time after the fact, simply because it was a 3D model that we were creating because there’s time to process after the initial capturing of the data. So you can’t always tell, exactly, if you were able to capture everything that you wanted to on the spot.
[NR] Right, so you need to go back out and kind of fill in those spots.
[BK] If we were doing cinematography or just regular photography, then we would be able to pop our SD card into the computer and look at it, and say, “Okay, well, let’s get this angle, that angle.” But when you have processing involved, then sometimes – we really wanted this model to be perfect. And so– [crosstalk] Yeah, and it really – we did go back out and – dig a little more data for that.
[NR] And if people are interested, you can actually find a fly-through of that 3D model on our website, at PreservationMaryland.org.
[BK] When I first saw it, I thought it was a photograph.
[NR] Yeah, really.
[BK] When I walked into the office, I saw the finished process. I was amazed that it was the model.
[NR] So it even impressed you [laughter], and you work in the field.
What Is Photogrammetry?
[NR] So you threw out a term that I know I wasn’t familiar familiar with before I met you folks. But it’s a term I’m very familiar with now because of some of the work that we’ve done together using it. You talked about photogrammetry. So for the listener whose not accustomed to drones and photography and things like that, what is photogrammetry?
[BK] Photogrammetry is basically, on a large scale, stitching many digital, high resolution, digital images together to create a larger data set of either 3D or 2D. A lot of times you’ll see drone operators create a panorama of a landscape where they might just stitch 6 photos together. But then, on a larger scale, when you are creating a 2D map or a 3D map, this is very coming in mapping, then you will fly in a more strategic method to get full coverage of an area.
[NR] So you’re stitching together a lot of photos.
[BK] You’re stitching a lot and it’s also a lot of overlap between the images both horizontally and vertically.
Creating a 3D Model Of Whites Hall
[NR] So now we worked with Elevated Element, and you and Terry went out, and you did photogrammetry at Whites Hall, which is the boyhood home of Johns Hopkins in Crofton, Maryland in Anne Arundel County. And that’s something that, if listeners are interested, you can find that on our website, as well. If you go to our website, you can just search Whites Hall. And it will pop right up. And you can actually see that and that’s even actually been turned in into something that you can print off as a 3D model, which is really sort of the next step of architectural documentation. I mean, a lot of documentation and people who are accustomed to it, maybe some of the listeners, you’re familiar with taking big photography or doing sketches, but this is really the next level, having a 3D model of a historic building, which is what we did there. How long did that take to do How many photographs are we talking about in something like that?
[BK] For that particular subject, Whites Hall, I believe that there was about 600 photographs taken.
[NR] And that’s just of one – people should understand that’s 600 photographs of one building.
[BK] Yes, a good sized house.
[NR] It’s a good sized– yeah, yeah, not your average 2,500 sq ft suburban home, but really phenomenal and a structure that is currently threatened. It’s sort of has an uncertain future, and we saw tremendous value in documenting something like that using this new technology. It seems to me like drones and drone photography hold a lot of promise for preservationists who are interested in documenting historic resources sort of to the next level. But you’ve also worked with the state of Maryland, not just documenting what’s there, but working with them to sort of reconstruct what was there but no longer is, right?
[BK] Right, right.
[NR] So tell us about that project. That’s just really interesting.
Reconstructing Lost Sites
[BK] Right. For at least a couple years now, State Highway Administration approached us about getting involved with creating 3D models of archaeological sites. For example, Belvoir is a slave quarters that we had the opportunity to do a scan of awhile ago.
[NR] And this is in Crownsville, I think, in Anne Arundel County. So for those people listening outside of Maryland, this is pretty close to Annapolis, Maryland.
[BK] That’s right. And it is nearby to Battlegrounds and the neighboring house there on the plantation, there’s all kinds of rumors that George Washington slept there…
[NR] Right. And this is right off of the road for those not familiar, they’re called the General’s Highways. Pretty rich in history, this area.
[BK] So this particular model is of a slave quarters, and it was very unique when it was discovered because normally, a slave quarters would be a rectangular footprint, and several families would be residing within that same structure. But because of what was discovered on artifacts and so forth that was discovered on the site, then the archaeologist realized that this was unique and that it was a square footprint, it was larger than what a typical slave quarters would be, and it only housed the one family, somebody who was higher in the…
[NR] Sort of the hierarchy. So your role in this, you obviously work with the archaeologists and they kind of provided the background and the history, and the did you actually — you flew the site and then created a digital model within that sort of digital world?
[BK] Yes, absolutely. So, there were several scans, several flights, several scans involved in a multi-step process of this recreation basically, because each area of the archaeological site had to be dug up, documented, filled back in so as the rain and so forth would not erode and disrupt the site. And so then, each section of the site was basically recreated independently, and then put together at the end to create the full model, and then a digital recreation of what the structure would have looked like in it’s time was then developed.
[NR] So obviously there’s an expense associated with that. In this case the State Highway Administration was picking up that bill, but it occurs to me just sort of thinking through it, it’s got to be a whole lot less – cheaper – to create a digital model than if they were to rebuild this or reconstruct it. I mean we’re talking about a fraction of that cost. And you have the ability to share that with a much wider audience because that’s online and people can take a look at that.
[BK] It’s very engaging, very interactive. That again was with Direct Dimensions. We were actually able to share that finished model and end animation with the descendants of the Belvoir Plantation at the Annapolis Center. And they were using virtual reality headsets to do a walk-through through the interior of the site as well.
[NR] So we’ve now moved into VR as well? And is that sort of the next step for your work? Are you doing a lot with virtual reality? Will that be something – is the average listener going to see VR pretty soon?
[BK] Right. Absolutely. All the emerging technologies – VR, augmented reality – are being combined to create whole new experiences that are highly engaging and interactive for users.
[NR] So for resources that potentially have been lost or have been damaged – historic resources, this is – you could envision a world in 20, 30 years where you can almost kind of go through and re-experience these places, but in a virtual sense.
[BK] That’s right. We could put a historic structure and return it to its former state or put it in the context of the original environment that it was in.
[NR] It almost sounds like sci-fi, but it’s not, I guess, right? And I suppose if you told someone in the 1940s that we would have full-length feature films that were just created digitally and there was nothing there, they wouldn’t believe you. And now it sort of seems like science fiction that we’re going to do this, we’re going to able to move through these worlds. But you’re sort of sitting there – matter-of-factly – this is not really astonishing or shocking to you. Obviously, you’re going to conferences and seeing this kind of stuff.
[BK] Oh, that’s right. And it’s sometimes very difficult to tell what’s real and what is not – what’s virtual.
[NR] Right. One more challenge for the preservation community.
[BK] Yes, absolutely [laughter]. But that also enables viewers to see what is possible for historic structure as well, so to be able to virtually redo the roof…
[NR] Oh right, so you can kind of see what kind of an impact would you have, or present that as an option if you were a public institution that was planning on doing A, B or C to a building you could show those different options so people don’t just to have to–
[crosstalk] That’s right.
–kind of imagine them, you can–
–actually visualize it.
[NR] Wow, so if there’s a listener out there who is working with a small organization – a little preservation group, a local group or maybe they run a historic site, or maybe they work at a higher level in another state – and they’re interested in getting involved with drones, do you have any – I mean, is there any recommendations? How do they go about doing that? Obviously, not everybody can hire Elevated Element, although we wish they could. But if they’re located in Colorado and they want to do it, what are some good things you should think about before getting involved with a drone operator?
[BK] If you want to do this yourself?
[NR] No, I mean– well, do you want to do it yourself, or do you want to hire someone? What would you recommend?
[BK] Okay, if you wanted to try this yourself – because at this point drones are very readily accessible and there’s amazing technology that’s packed into these small, unmanned, aerial vehicles.
[NR] Sort of consumer grade stuff.
[BK] Right, right, absolutely. To do that, I would say definitely start out small, take it slow, go out to a rural area, get permission from whoever owns the land or property that you plan to fly on.
[NR] Be polite.
[BK] Right. Get to know the rules. You can go on the FAA website, of course, and all of the rules for hobbyists – definitely you’re starting off as a hobbyist – and become familiar with those. Use common courtesy, just respecting people’s environments and privacy.
[NR] Now if you’re thinking about working with a firm, though, is there some – how can you vet a firm? How do you know that you’re working with someone who’s a little bit more legitimate than just the aforementioned crazy uncle?
[BK] Right. They should have a portfolio of work that you should be able to review…
[NR] And then I guess FAA certifications, are you looking for that as well? Is that something that should be standard?
[BK] Yeah, especially now that the Part 107 certification is available for commercial use. Then once you pass your test, it’s basically you can go to a community college or an airfield and take the test, and then in a couple weeks you actually get a license in the mail. It’s called a certification now. And so you could ask to see that so they could prove. And there’s also a — you can go online, as well, and see if they do have the certification.
[NR] So a couple last questions here for you. Real sort of rapid fire stuff. Do you have a favorite building in Maryland? I know it’s hard, but I mean, you did an entire book of beautiful photography of Baltimore. I guess it doesn’t have to be Baltimore, but did you have a favorite one when you did all that shooting?
[BK] Yes. I would say Penn Station probably. That was one that I wanted to get for a long time. And I’m kind of picky with my – I had a vision in my head of what I wanted it to look like…
[NR] This is the artistic side coming out.
[BK] Right, right. So of course one day, finally, the conditions were just right. There was very few people out. It was early in the morning. But the umbrellas were opened outside, so pops of color. And it was just a gorgeous day. And I was able to go directly up to all of the policemen on site, all the security guards, let them know who we were and what we were doing. And if there were any people in the area, then I approached them as well and let them know what we were doing. And it literally took us about five minutes to get it, and so that was great.
[NR] So that’s definitely high up there, I guess.
[BK] Yeah, I hope to go back and revisit Penn Station at golden hour with the different lighting.
[NR] Right, and there was a redevelopment project kind of moving forward with Penn Station as well, and so, you may have an opportunity to kind of see it as it’s being redeveloped at this point, too.
[BK] Fantastic, right. And of course Bromo-Seltzer Tower so…
[NR] Yeah, everybody loves Bromo. So if people wanted to get in touch with Elevated Element, how would they do that if they’re based here in Maryland? Or if they’re somewhere in the mid-Atlantic and they have a project that they’d like to have you take a look at, how can they get in touch with you?
[BK] Well, they could get to our website, it’s www.ElevatedElement.com, and email@example.com is the email address that will go to both Terry and myself. And of course then we have a Facebook page, Elevated Element; and Instagram: Elevated Element; and Twitter: Elevated Element…
[NR] So you’re everywhere? So it’s not hard to find you.
[BK] We’re very plugged in so you can find us one way or another, for sure.
[NR] Good. Well thank you so much for joining us today, we really appreciate it having you here in the studio at PreserveCast.
[BK] Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!