The average workday for professional drone pilot Gabriel Kocher, better known as Gab707, looks like something out of Tron: Legacy. A trip to the office consists of neon-lit warehouses, razor-sharp turns, and the inescapable buzzing of quadcopters. Like any great athlete, Kocher needs days off to escape the high-intensity environment of rapid drone races. But his vacations might actually be more extreme than his competition.
During the off-season, Kocher has made it a hobby to travel the world and fly his swarm of drones over mountains, cliffs, oceans, and now swaths of molten earth. In April, Kocher traveled to Hawaii’s largest island and got the opportunity to fly a drone over the now dangerously-active Kilauea volcano before it erupted. He managed to capture aerial footage of the calm before the volcanic storm.
Kocher will be weaving his quadcopter through a gauntlet of obstacles again, once the third season of the Drone Racing League (DRL) kicks off September 6, 2018 on ESPN. Until then he’ll be touring the world, flying his drone, and telling Inverse how the hell he pulled this video off.
How did you even get that close to the volcano?
Volcanoes are highly monitored, as soon as there are any major eruptions all of the areas get locked down by temporary flight restrictions. To top it off, it had been it had been poring for the past few days. But on April 19 there was little volcanic activity and the weather clear. We were there at the right time. I mean look at it now, only three weeks later the whole area is a no-go; my thoughts are with all of the people nearby having to evacuate. What I captured was really the volcano dormant.
How did it feel flying over lava with that VR headset on?
Once you put on the headset it almost feels like you’re the drone. It almost seems like you’re the one flying and you almost feel like your backside is heating up over the lava. Every time the wind would blow up there I would kind of lose balance too. I knew in my head that I was safe, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel scared and anxious, but everything worked out. Definitely nerve-racking though.
How did this compare to competing?
When I race I’m flying as close as possible to walls and really trying to push the envelope of what I can do physically and mentally. Whereas here I really kept within my boundaries to make sure I didn’t mess up. The problem with lava fields is that they look the same in all directions, it’s all just pitch black and there are no clear markers. So if the drone went down it would probably be lost for good. When I do flights like this, I do my best to make sure I don’t crash.
Did you have any close calls?
I had to pull off a few close calls to make sure the footage looked extra dramatic. So once or twice I got a little too close to the lava. But I couldn’t overdo it because of how difficult it is to fly when the lava heats up the air. These random hotspots heat up the air, causing it to rise so you get these huge turbulent cells. It’s definitely harder to keep control compared to an indoor setting.
Did you have an idea of how you wanted the video to turn out? Or did you wing it?
I tried to keep the essence of freestyle. I started out flying calmly to introduce the location and as I went on, I slowly pick up the intensity. That’s where acrobatic flying comes in. I was trying to portray the sheer energy buried under there. You see the solid ground and you wouldn’t know there are these hot lava chambers just underneath your feet.
Do you see a relationship between cinematography and flying drones?
Absolutely, expressing myself through the drone was the most exciting part for me. These racing drones have a camera that sticks to the angle of the drone so the flying that you do feels very intuitive because you’re moving with the flight’s correction. It makes you feel like you’re a bird. So that’s a feeling I think I can bring through in my flying. It’s sort of bringing in technical elements into it like you do in figure skating.
This could be considered a type of figure skating…If Moltres strapped on some ice skates and glided over Kilauea.