How to be a drone pilot in winter

HOW TO BE A DRONE PILOT IN WINTER

It’s cold. Really cold. Like not above 0 degrees for the next 8 days cold.  

Welcome to winter in Minnesota!


You may be wondering if you can fly your drone in winter. Guess what? The answer is yes, but with some exceptions. While there are weather conditions that you should not expose your drone to, cold temperatures do not mean you can’t get out there and fly. Winter weather can be gorgeous to photograph, and the crisp, clear days may be calling you to get in some air time.

At Sky Eye Films, we’ve compiled some tips for how to be a drone pilot in winter. Take a look at these recommendations, make the proper preparations, and plan ahead. You’ll be enjoying the fun of winter drone flying in no time!

Don’t Fly in an Active Storm

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Just like you wouldn’t fly your drone when it’s raining, flying during an active snowstorm isn’t a good idea. Moisture and drones are definitely not friends. Any kind of precipitation can damage the camera and gimbal, cause a short in the motor or other malfunctions to either your drone or controller. Check the weather forecast before you head out flying, and be aware that altitude changes also affect the temperature and moisture.

If your drone gets caught in the snow or rain, land it as soon as you can. Remove the battery and thoroughly dry off the props and the body. Compressed air can be a good way to remove any moisture in the gimbal pads or other small crevices.

Follow these steps if your drone crash-lands into a snowbank. It can be easy to have an accident when flying over a winter landscape, especially as many drones use their cameras for stability and navigation. The whiteness of the snow provides hardly any contrast for the cameras, which use shadows to discern movement.


Winter Drone Flying Tips & Challenges

If the temperature is below freezing (0 degrees C or 32 degrees F), then save flying your drone for another day. It’s just too cold for the technology. If the temps are at least 32 degrees F, then you can fly your drone as long as you take into account the restrictions on your battery life.

You won’t be able to fly for as long as usual if you’re flying in colder temperatures. Expect your batteries to only last 50% as long as they would normally. Most drones use lithium-polymer LiPo batteries, which create energy through a chemical reaction. When the weather is colder, these reactions slow down, and you have dramatically reduced battery capacity. Expect a fully charged LiPo battery to only provide about 10-15 minutes of flight time in cold weather. Your battery may perform erratically as well, with a sudden severe drop in power, and in rare cases, total battery failure.

The cold can also affect how well you fly. If your fingers and hands are cold, it will be harder to operate the controls for a stable and smooth flight. Cold temperatures can also affect the drone’s sensors, causing it to be less responsive.

Hand-warmers in your gloves and around your drone batteries is a simple hack that can help keep you and your drone warmer and in better flight condition.

Battery Care for Winter Drone Flights

Keeping the batteries as warm as you can will help their performance. Simple tips such as keeping the batteries in your car’s cabin (rather than the trunk) while in transport to your location will help your experience. Also helpful is wrapping batteries in a scarf, glove, or blanket or simply keeping them in your pockets rather than a backpack.

Hovering after takeoff will help your drone warm up. Bring the aircraft to about 10-12 feet and allow it to hover for 45-60 seconds. Your goal is to get the battery temperature to at least 59-68 degrees F. You can check your drone’s battery temperature with a mobile app or on the controller. Hovering also allows the motors to warm up and provides you the chance to confirm that the drone isn’t experiencing any troubles related to the temperature.

Only use fully charged batteries when flying in the cold. Do not fly until you get a low battery warning. When the power drops below 30-40% battery life, bring your drone in for a landing. Carry additional fully-charged batteries to swap out if you plan to be out more than 15 minutes.

Other battery tips for flying during cold weather include:

  • Only gently pushing your control sticks to prevent voltage drops.

  • Avoid flying at full speed or full throttle, especially in the first few minutes of flight. Doing so draws heavy current usage from the battery and cause it to fail suddenly or more rapidly deplete in cold weather.

Be sure to keep a good eye on your battery’s power so you can safely land your drone before the battery fails and you have to rescue your drone from a snowbank.

Manually Adjust your Drone Camera

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Capturing the beauty of the snowscape can be tough. To overcome these cold-weather obstacles, you should manually set your camera exposure and white balance. In auto mode, the camera’s exposure settings often underexpose snow, resulting in dark images. The brightness of the snow tricks the exposure system, but you can compensate by adding additional stops to the exposure. Take the time to adjust the white balance for the blinding whiteness of snow cover to avoid pictures where the snow looks dingy and gray.

Plan Ahead

Remember that your smartphone also uses a LiPo battery and its performance life will be affected by the colder temperatures, too. Bringing a portable battery charger for your phone or GPS will be essential, especially if you use either for live-streamed navigation footage as part of your drone’s flight. Take steps to keep your mobile device warm as well.

Make sure you will be warm enough, too. This is no time to skip the gloves, hat, scarf, or wool socks.

Flying in the winter can be great fun and result in some truly awesome footage. Check in with some of your drone-flying friends from your Peak Drone School classes or that you met in hobbyist groups. They may be able to join you on your adventure or have some other tips to make your journey into cold-temperature flying a success.