7 Essential Winter Drone Flight Tips
Flying your drone in the winter can be one of the most rewarding times to fly, however you must be adequately prepared! We fly our drones in the often brutal Canadian winters, so have decided to share our top winter flight tips with you! Yes, these tips come from experience, not just what we’ve read on the internet 😉
Keeping Your Hands Warm
I’m a big fan of flying without gloves, as I feel that I loose dexterity and the “touch” required to fly with precision. However, the first thing that I’d experience during winter flight is cold hands. In addition to the lack of dexterity, I found that many gloves that were “touchscreen friendly” were anything but that. Many would somehow stop working when they got cold (go figure), or just not work at all.
After months of trial and error, I finally found a pair that kept my hands warm while working great on touchscreen devices. The Under Armour gloves are by far the best of anything I’ve used, and I highly recommend their Storm ColdGear Infrared Elements series.
They’re made out of soft fleece, so you can move your fingers easily while you fly your drone. They are also lined with some kind of magical technology which absorbs and retains your body heat. The biggest benefit though is their “Tech Touch” which allows you to use your touchscreen devices with both your fingers and thumbs. I’ve found that I can tap and move my iPad or iPhone with ease when I’m wearing these gloves, and only experience touch failures about 10% of the time. That may sound like a lot, but most of the gloves that I tested only worked about 10% of the time, so these babies are a huge improvement! Anyway, they come in a variety of styles and colours over at Amazon or your local sporting goods store.
Keeping Drone Batteries Warm
The biggest challenge in winter flight, is keeping your drone batteries warm. Lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries pack a lot of punch in a small and lightweight package, but require proper care to be flown in the winter. Simply carrying your batteries around in a backpack or standard drone case isn’t going to work, as they will cool off too much. If you’re flying in milder temperatures you may see a warning on your device that the batteries need to warm up before the drone can take off, but trust me if you’re flying in anything below freezing temperatures they simply won’t warm up enough to let you take off.
I’ve found two foolproof solutions over the years, and the first involves keeping everything inside a warm vehicle until the moment that you’re going to fly. I absolutely don’t mean keeping your drone and batteries right in front of your heaters, but rather just within your vehicle to soak up the ambient heat. You can damage your drone batteries by quickly heating or cooling them in front of your heat/ac vents.
Warm Drone Batters via the Cooler Method
If you’re not going to be near a vehicle, the best option is to use an insulated cooler to keep your batteries warm. The key to selecting a cooler to keep your batteries warm, is to choose one that is appropriately sized. You want to ensure that your batteries stay fairly close to each other and the heat source, otherwise they will cool down the second that you open it up. I prefer something like the bag to the right which has a 9 can capacity. This allows you to store several drone batteries along with your heat sources, all while remaining lightweight and easy to cary around with you.
The first heat source that I recommend are the typical hand warmers that you would shove in your gloves on a long winter excursion. This time instead of putting them in your gloves, you’ll toss a couple of them into your cooler bag along with your drone batteries. I find for a 9 can capacity bag, that 4 to 6 of the standard size hand warmers does the trick. Make sure that you don’t get the adhesive type though as you don’t want them sticking to your batteries or cooler liner.
The second heat source that I recommend is filling 355ml water bottles with hot water. You don’t need to boil water, just take the hottest water that you can get out of your tap and that’ll do the trick. My house’s taps pump out 60 C (140 F) and I find that filling about 3 or 4 bottles will keep the bag warm all day.
Just remember that warm air rises, so it’s important to place your hand warmers or bottles at the bottom of your bag to radiate the heat up, and not the other way around. Also, make sure that you seal those bottles up tight so that they won’t leak on your expense drone batteries!
Touchscreen Device Warming
Just like your drone batteries, you need to keep your iPad, iPhone, or other touchscreen device warm or it’ll die FAST! What works with your devices, but not with drone batteries, is simply keeping them inside your jacket to warm via your body heat. External pockets don’t work, and probably aren’t big enough for your iPad anyway, so be sure to keep them inside your jacket.
Speaking of touchscreen devices, I prefer larger devices like the iPad over smaller ones like the iPhone due to their increased battery capacity. You’re going to drain your device quickly when flying in freezing temperatures, so may as well bring along the most battery capacity possible. Another benefit of a larger screen is that your touchscreen gloves will actually hit the right target. Trust me, there is nothing worse than tapping a million times on a small screen when it’s freezing out!
ND and Polarizing Filters
In order to combat all of that bright reflective snow, I recommend using a good set of lens filters on your drone. Both PolarPro and Tiffen make awesome options for a variety drones, and should be used during almost all winter flight. As I often discuss on my podcast, ND filters are great for slowing down your shutter speed, and polarized filters are excellent for removing glare when flying over snow and water.
Camera Settings for Snow Shooting
Shooting in snowy conditions can play tricks on your camera’s auto exposure settings, so I recommend switching to manual settings to combat dark or strange coloured snow. If you’ve ever shot in the snow and found it to be quite grey instead of white, you’ll want to make a few adjustments to how you shoot. Our friends over at B&H photo have a great article with their 7 tips for taking photos in the snow. 5 of those 7 tips are excellent for drone photographers, so I recommend heading over there for the quick read.
Asf for me? I make sure that I adjust for each scene that I’m shooting in. There aren’t any surefire settings that will capture each winter scene the same, so I’m always making small tweaks to my white balance and shutter speed to ensure that I get white snow that isn’t under exposed. Remember, a faster shutter speed will under expose the scene, so manually slowing it down will start to brighten things up for you. Make sure that you don’t go too bright though, as you don’t want everything else to get washed out too.
Calibrate Your Drone in Cooler Temperatures
Often when you fire up your drone in cold temperatures, you’ll receive a warning that it needs to warm up before flight. One way to satisfy the drone that it’s operating in suitable temperatures, is to calibrate the IMU in cooler temperatures. If your drone was last calibrated when its was hot out, it’s going to think it needs to be near that temperature before allowing flight. If you calibrate the IMU in something cooler, then it won’t try to warm up to something unnecessary before allowing takeoff.
I don’t recommend calibrating the IMU when it’s -10C (14F), but instead try and do it around freezing instead. That will provide your drone with a good baseline, and won’t put you in the impossible situation of the drone thinking it needs to warm up to +25C before it’s going anywhere.
Minimum Drone Flight Temperatures
Most drones have a lower temperature limit of 0 C (32 F), however some of the newer drones such as the DJI Inspire 2 and Mavic 2 series are rated below freezing. The good news is that if you keep your drone and batteries warm before flight, you can start above the minimum temperature, and the drone will keep itself warm during flight. That said, there are extremes that you won’t want to fly in as you’re going to ruin your batteries. Speaking from experience, drones that are rated to 0C (32F) are totally fine to fly in temperatures around -10C (14F). Once you start getting colder than -15C (5F) then you run the risk of ruining your batteries.
I know there are hero drone pilots out there that have claimed flights in -1,000,000 degrees, but seriously you are not doing any good for your drone. In 2014 I flew my old Phantom 2 in -17C, which resulted in the battery freezing up and almost not having enough power to land the drone safely. I ended up damaging the battery due to the temperatures, and it had to be taken out of service. With how expensive drone batteries are, make sure that you keep them warm and don’t fly in anything too cold. My recommendations are listed here, however I’ll leave that final temperature decision up to you!
Listen to the podcast instead of reading this post!
If you’d like to listen to the podcast in relation to this blog post, here you go! If you’re not aware, I have an awesome drone related podcast, where I speak with drone pilots from around the world. You can listen right here on the site, or subscribe and listen in iTunes or Google Play. Anyway, here is today’s podcast episode about winter drone flight tips:
Now get out there and have fun flying!
I hope that you’ve enjoyed these winter flying tips! Now that you’re prepared to stay warm, get out there and hit the winter sky!