Many new drone owners begin their “droning carreer” right after christmas and head out for first flights in cold weather. And snowy and icy season means you can capture pretty great sceneries from the air anyway. But cold weather also means that there are number of things you need to consider to make sure you fly safely and don´t lose your equipment right away.
First of all, drones work in cold perfectly well. Electrical motors don´t care about the temperature too much. Cold weather is not a reason not to go out and shoot great photos. But cold air brings certain extra challenges that you should be aware and overcome somehow. I put together a list of the most basic things to understand.
1. Keep your batteries warm
Every one of you who has experience of using electronic devices (with batteries) in cold weather probably knows this. Batteries die really fast when exposed to cold weather. So do your drone batteries! If you just throw them in your backpack and take a long hike to your flying spot, you´ll be looking at a radically reduced flying time. And you´re more likely to encounter low-battery hazards sooner, like your drone auto-landing on the spot when battery hits 10 % (DJI drones), or not making it home to strong headwind.
The answer is: keep your batteries warm until you fire up your drone. At least many DJI drones produce quite a bit of heat when motors are running and battery is in use, so it´s likely that once powered up your drone will heat itself pretty well. It´s that down time exposed to cold tempereatures that will make your batteries drain!
How to warm your batteries? One simple tip is to keep them in your car, set up your drone it the car and start it rightaway when outside. Or you could buy heated outdoor shoe insoles to warm up your battery storage if you´re not going out in a car.
2. Keep your phone warm
Your drone battery is not the only thing suffering from the cold. Your smartphone does too. If your drone is partly operated with and app on your phone, like the DJI drones, make sure your phone doesn´t die while your drone is in-flight. You should always keep your drone in sight, but losing the camera view on your phone might still make it one bit harder to control it.
So figure out a way to keep your phone warm and insulated. Like, wrap it in a fake-fur or something?
3. Watch out for icing your propellers
This is probably the most important environmental factor to be aware of when flying your drone in cold weather. The propeller icing. Simply: fast spinning propellers can accumulate ice in temperatures just around freezing point and / or when the air has certain humidity-to-temperature -ratio. When that ratio is 100 % at a given temperature – meaning that a given sample of air will have a relative humidity of 100 % – it´s called a dew point. When the temperature is below freezing and dew point is reported to be lower than the actual tempereature, you have a risk of propeller icing.
Simply: It´s a good idea to avoid flying in freezing or “almost freezing” temperatures when the air is moist, misty, cloudy, frosty etc… Clear and dry cold air is perfectly fine.
And what happens if your propellers start building up ice? At least your drone´s performance decreases. Ice in rotors reduces lift and your drone will automatically compensate by adding power. You´ll drain battery faster, you might not be able to climb over obstacles anymore and the possibility to just falling out of the sky like a brick can´t be excluded.
For pilots icing is one of the biggest hazards and as a drone operator you should avoid it too.
4. Don´t land in (yellow) snow
Just kidding for the yellow part… Landing in deep snow is the problem. So if you´re flying in a snowy environment learn to catch your drone from the air (easy with basic DJI consumer drones like the Mavic Pro or Phantom) or bring a landing pad so you can avoid getting your electronics wet.
5. Beware of condensation when taking your drone into a warm place
Water, moisture and electronics don´t work well together. And your average drone, even the more expensive “prosumer models” is not waterproof. In cold weather one way to get your electronic devices wet is to use them in cold air and then bring them in to warm temperatures. That can cause condensation on the device´s surfaces. Condensation means that moisture, fog and water drops start building up on a surface. Try it with your phone for example… When you get indoors, you are likely to see a foggy screen.
In a winter drone mission this might occur when you get in a warm car after a flight and head to the next spot. In that case it would be a good idea to detach the battery just to be extra sure that nothing short circuits. Or detach the battery and keep your drone in the cold temperature if you intend to use it again soon. The drone won´t mind the cold temperature. It´s the battery you should keep warm… So having a couple of fully charged and warmed batteries is a must for longer winter drone missions.
And when you return home keep battery detached and let everything dry out before powering up again.
By the way, you might want to try silica gel products for absorbing moisture from your electronic devices.
6. Keep your fingers warm
Despite all the added risks still the most likely problem you´ll encounter is freezing your fingers. So bring proper gloves that allow you to keep your hands warm while still allowing you to control your drone. Keeping your hands warm can also be a safety issue. If you for example lose the GPS (fall back to so-called ATTI mode in DJI drones) you need to be able to properly control the drone and bring it home safely. Which could be harder to do with super frozen fingers…
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