Flying Drones in Cold Weather

Drone in snow

It’s a beautiful winter day.  Freezing cold, the world sparkling with ice and snow, it’s really tempting to want to take your drone up and capture this beauty in some beautiful aerial shots.  But should you?

Maybe.

But there are things to consider first.  Precipitation, the state of your equipment, the wind, and the laws of physics.

As anyone familiar with drones knows, they don’t like extreme cold.  Optimal temps for most models are between 32 – 104 degrees Fahrenheit (0-40 Celsius.)

 If you care about keeping your drone in working condition do not attempt to fly in the rain, snow, sleet, hail, or freezing fog.  The risk of damage to your drone is too high.  But if you feel the conditions are such that you want to fly in extreme cold here are 10 tips to help make it as easy on you and your drone as possible.

Here are some tips and tricks to have a successful flight in cold weather when flying a drone.  Video by Jeven Dovey



1. Consult your user’s manual

Your user’s manual will give you the temperature and altitude specs for your model.  Take these into consideration and don’t operate out of the recommended range, if you do, you risk damaging your drone.

 This is an excellent, and often overlooked resource when it comes to specs from temperature to camera settings.

2. Check for loose or damaged parts

When the weather is below freezing you are at greater risk of any plastic parts on your drone cracking as it’s more brittle, and screws more apt to loosen.  When flying your drone in cold weather keep it warm when not flying, make sure you have a clear and dry landing area, and check for damage and loosening screws often so you catch any issues before sending it back up.

 Make sure you have the proper tools for on-site repairs if needed including extra screws.  There is nothing worse than needing to do a simple repair but not having the proper tools on hand.  You don’t want to stay grounded for want of a screwdriver.

3. Keep flights short

It’s a good idea to land when your battery is at 30% as extreme cold affects your battery’s performance.  The rule of thumb is to expect to cut your flight time by 20% to avoid sudden battery drain while in the air.

 Keep in mind that wind will require more battery pull, so if the day is particularly breezy as well as cold you will go through your battery even faster.  Along these lines, remember being heavy handed with the throttle will also pull hard from the battery, so be careful of that.

4. Keep battery warm

LiPo batteries do not react well in extreme cold.  Keep your battery (and your spares) as warm as possible when not flying by keeping them in your car or wrapped close to your body.  Handwarmers are very useful here to keep your batteries warm as well as yourself, just make sure to wrap them so they never come in contact with your batteries directly.

If your drone has an external stick battery you can wrap it in warm fabric to try to protect it while in use or use battery insulation stickers designed for this purpose. 

5. Charge your battery

Make sure your battery (and all spares) are fully charged. I can’t over state the diminished performance of your batteries in the extreme cold, and the colder it is the faster they will drain. To avoid a crash due to a sudden mid-air loss of power you need to be constantly aware of your charge.
Make sure that while one battery is in use your spares are charging in a warm area, so they are ready to go.

6. Spares and portable chargers

As the extreme cold will have a cause a significant decrease in batter performance you want to make sure you have plenty of both.  Keep these stored in a warm place when not in use so they are ready to go when you need them.

7. Hover for a bit

Between 30-60 seconds hover before taking flying your drone in cold weather. This will not only give your battery a chance to warm up, but it will allow you to get a feel for how your drone performs in the cold. You don’t want any surprises once it’s up in the air.

It’s also a good idea to idle for a few minutes before attempting to hover, particularly if your drone had been in the cold for a while before starting.

8. Avoid precipitation

As most drones aren’t waterproof it’s important to check the weather before taking it up. If you are caught unawares by rain or snow land as quickly as possible, immediately dry thoroughly, and call it a day. Ice build up can not only throw off your drone’s balance due to the impact on its aerodynamic properties but can damage the innerworkings as it melts.

Make sure you have a clear, dry place to land. If the ground is damp or snow covered, you may wish to use a landing pad to avoid contact with the moisture. If you do accidentally crash into the snow remove the battery immediately, wipe it off, and blow any snow out of your drone with compressed air. Do not reconnect the battery or any power source until everything is perfectly dry.

9. Keep warm, especially your hands

If your hands are cold you won’t have the dexterity you need to pilot properly. Make sure you have a pair of gloves that will not just allow you the freedom of movement to fly but will keep you properly warm as well. Another option is a transmitter glove. Handwarmers are also great to have on hand for some extra warmth in between flights. Experiment and see which gives you the most hands on control.

Keeping the rest of you warm is important, too. Dressing warmly in layers, proper eye protection, and a thermos full of a hot beverage will help keep you comfortable and safe as you focus on flying.

10. Optimize camera settings

Auto settings on cameras aren’t designed for the brightness of the snow. To avoid under-exposed pictures, you need to set your exposure manually by over-exposing it by 0.3-0.7 stop. Check your photos and adjust accordingly until you’re happy with the quality of your pictures. If you have the option to set your white balance it should be at 6500k. If not adjusted properly your pictures will come out too blue or too amber. Consult your user manual for specific instructions for your model.

Weather affects the video, too. Most higher end drones have a fixed aperture which can result in jerky video more reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project than you would like due to the brightness of the snow. Your video will record more smoothly with a neutral density filter to slow your shutter speed. Your optimal shutter speed should be approximately double your frame rate.

If you would like to fly frequently in extreme weather, there are drones on the market which are built to handle the challenges of the cold.

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