15-year-old Nathan Lu is one of the world’s youngest digital cartographers—and he does it by drone

When 11-year-old Long Beach resident Nathan Lu was seven, he wanted a drone—badly. His parents informed him that he had to work for it, and developed a specialized chore schedule for him while he, through the work, eventually built up a savings of $20.

“It was the cheapest drone of ’em all on eBay,” he said. “But it had a 720p camera and I loved it so much.”

Drones—like smartphones—have become ubiquitous in the electronic world, as the advancements in drone technology have made the equipment to experiment with them cheap and easy while making the equipment to use them on heavily advanced levels both pricey and exclusive. And Nathan knew, should he want to really explore the world of drones on a higher level, he would need to upgrade his equipment.

With his first drone, Nathan began flying the contraption around his house and, eventually growing bored, crashed it. On purpose. This was all in the hopes that, should his Machiavellian plan work out, his parents would see the damaged drone, feel sympathy for Nathan, and upgrade his operations.

Enter the Syma X5, a drone he would fly “at least five or seven times a day” only to go “really high and then unexpectedly cut the motors” to see what would happen or if he could restart it mid-fall. Then enter a DJI Spark. A Ryze Tello drone coded with Scratch software. And even a DJI Mavic Air, which took Nathan nearly a year of saving and working to score.

Nathan would soon not only become obsessed with the harnessing of the hardware and software behind drones, rewatching the YouTube videos of drone stars like @ReadySetDrone and @KenHeron to the point of memorizing them, but he would become intrigued by one particular aspect of a drone’s capability: to survey the world around him.

“When I fly my drone, I see the world from a different angle,” he said. “I honestly believe that it is something that not many other things can do. I like to see my drone as not only a cool toy but as a tool to showcase my area to the world.”

From Laguna Beach to Irvine—the latter of which Nathan notes as fascinating because Irvine’s “Stepford Wives”-like design showcases “a whole buncha symmetrical rooftops”—Nathan’s love of flying then took on a more tangible responsibility: submitting images to Soar.

Initially launched in 2012 for governments, Soar had one mission in its beginning concepts: to create a digital super-map—high-definition images that go into significantly more detail that Google’s civilian map—that was accessible on mobile devices that were both offline and in remote locations.

“After two years of research and development, Soar was adopted for defense and security applications and the technology underwent significant operational testing,” said Amir Farhand, CEO of Soar. “The focus of this testing was to build a robust mapping platform that could handle any form of content and maintain key functionality on the blockchain.”

A screenshot shows how Soar both uses ultra-high-definition photos to map the world along with how they allow photographers to sell their work.

Now that this content has been released into the civilian world, Soar has been seeking help from drone pilots across the nation, in addition to its own satellites and aerial sensors used to garner images, to create the world’s first fully accessible super-map and, on top of this, providing drone pilots 70% commission for every image sold.

Nathan has covered almost every aspect of Long Beach—from the suburbs to our boats—for the mapping system—which Amanda French, spokesperson for Soar, noted that he was the youngest drone pilot and photographer in their entire database—all with the hopes of eventually beginning his own own real estate drone imaging business.

But for now, his eyes are on Argentina.

“If I could travel anywhere to fly, it would definitely be somewhere with ice, preferably Argentina,” he said. “We do not get much snow or cold weather, and I think flying in different areas would be something extremely cool.”

Cool indeed.

Editor’s note: Soar had initially reported to us that Nathan Lu was 11 years old; he is 15 years old.

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.


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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.