Flying drones during the winter months can be an extremely challenging experience. It can test the best pilots, and it’s important to follow simple guidelines. This drone survival guide intends on taking you through the key points to ensure you have a safe flight and get the data you need. We will also take you through our drone recommendations for flying during the colder months ahead.
Battery care and maintenance
One of the biggest issues you’ll face when flying your drone in the winter is battery management. Cold temperatures reduce the amount of chemical activity within Lithium Polymer (LiPo) batteries. This causes the battery to become unstable and may result in your drone falling out of the sky with little or no warning.
It is imperative therefore that you monitor battery health and check your batteries are functioning normally before take off. Checking your battery has an adequate charge is something you should be doing as part of your preflight checks anyway.
As a general rule, you should ensure batteries are at room temperature before use. While it can be beneficial to store batteries at colder temperatures.
You should never attempt to charge a battery at or below 0ºC. Doing can cause irreversible damage, so always wait until batteries have reached room temperature before charging.
One of the best ways to reduce battery malfunctions during winter is to use a drone such as the Mavic 2 Enterprise which has self-heating batteries. The Inspire 2 and Matrice 200 series also uses the TB50 & TB55 batteries, which are self-heating. This eliminates the need for using separate battery heaters or waiting for the batteries to reach room temperature before use.
Follow this drone survival guide to maintain battery health and have a safe flight:
- Check batteries are fully charged before flight
- Ensure batteries have reached room temperature (20ºC) or more before use. Most drones allow you to check battery temperature. Use a separate battery heater or a drone equipped with self-heating batteries.
- When flying on a cold day let the drone hover for a few minutes to allow the batteries time to acclimatise.
- Apply light pressure on the control sticks. Aggressive control inputs which force the drone to increase power suddenly can cause sudden voltage drops, so try to keep your control inputs linear and smooth.
- Don’t forget, batteries discharge faster in colder temperatures. So keep an eye on battery status during flight.
Check your equipment is up to the task
Not all drones are suitable for winter flying. While this does not prevent you from flying in colder weather it does increase the risk of an accident. Ideally, your drone should be capable of handling cold temperatures and high moisture levels. It should also have multiple redundant systems to ensure safe winter flying in all conditions.
A drone such as DJI’s Matrice 210, is perfect for winter flying due to its high ingress protection (IP) rating. At the very least, this will allow you to land the drone safely should you be interrupted by a sudden rain shower. The multiple redundant systems of the M210 also ensure continued operation in the event of a single point of failure.
If your work involves a lot of hours out in the field during the winter months, you should think seriously about whether your equipment is up to the task. Such work includes; agricultural field mapping, surveying and mapping, construction progressand infrastructure inspection
At a minimum, your drone should meet the following specifications:
- It should have an IP rating of at least IP43. This should ensure you can land the drone safely if the weather turns quickly.
- Your drone should have multiple redundant systems including batteries and flight control units (FCU). This reduces the risk of a single point of failure causing the drone to crash.
- Your drone should be fitted with high visibility LED lighting or a beacon. This allows you to easily keep sight of your drone in bad weather or when the light begins to fail.
Monitor weather reports
When flying a drone in the winter months it is good practice to monitor weather reports before you take-off. In the UK, the weather can change quickly, particularly on higher ground. So don’t get caught out and make sure no fog, high-winds, heavy-rain or snow-showers are forecast.
You can check the weather using a free app such as UAV Forecast which provides accurate weather forecasts up to 24 hours ahead. The app also provides information on visible GPS satellites and even solar flares helping to keep your drone flying safely at all times of the year.
Don’t forget the light fades quickly during the winter months. Always check sunset times and plan your day so that jobs are complete before it gets dark.
Keep your drone flying safely by only flying if the following conditions are met:
- Do not fly if snow, hail, heavy winds, rain or fog are forecast
- Do not fly in temperatures below 0ºC
- Monitor the temperature. Stop flying if the temperature falls below 0ºC
- Ensure you have a strong GPS signal and avoid flying in ATTI mode during the winter months. Sudden gusts of wind can cause problems for even the most experienced pilots.
It is also important that you don’t forget about yourself. Many inexperienced drone pilots are not used to working outside. Cold weather can impair hand dexterity while reducing tactile sensitivity and tracking performance. This dramatically increases the risk of an incident, as well as hyperthermia.
Ensure you are equipped to spend long days out in the field. At a minimum, you should have a warm coat, hat and gloves. If you carry out agricultural or construction work you should also have a good pair of safety boots.
Ensure you wear the following pieces of safety equipment for safe winter drone flying:
- Always wear gloves. Flying a drone with cold hands may be dangerous and can result in a loss of control.
- Wrap up warm. Being exposed to the cold can make you tired. Even a mild drop in temperature can make you feel sleepy.
Winter is full of airborne moisture with the regular occurrence of rain, fog and snow – none of which are particularly friendly to the motors or sensitive electronics on your drone. You will also have to deal with moisture on the lens and your phone/tablet screen.
Do not fly through fog as you will lose visual line of sight. If you encounter rain or snow, land immediately. Be mindful of where you take off and land, as the propellers can kick up a fair amount of snow when they’re near the ground.
To prevent moisture damage from occurring, you should use a landing pad to stop your drone from coming into contact with snow and moisture.
Similarly, you should be prepared for propeller icing. Especially in the UK, you may think that icing won’t happen but in colder temperatures, there is a possibility. It doesn’t have to be below 0 degrees to happen either.
Icing is where there’s a build-up of ice on the propellers during flight which can result in prop damage and in extreme cases, a drone crash. Icing occurs due to a combination of cold temperatures and moisture in the air.
Flying in clouds or mist, combined with temperatures below 5 degrees may cause a build-up of ice. It can occur above 0 degrees due to the high speed of the propeller reducing the temperature. Monitor your drone during flight and if you suspect icing is occurring, land immediately and dry your aircraft. Also, ensure your drone is wiped down thoroughly and dry once you have finished flying.
Plan your Flight Path
Preparation is key whenever you fly you drone; however it is particularly important when flying in winter.
First of all, plan your flight location before you travel in the cold with your drone. Make an image or video shot list and know what you need before take-off. Try and avoid flying in difficult locations such as over water as you may need to land your aircraft at short notice if the temperature drops or it starts raining.
Pack the aircraft and batteries in an insulated case when possible to keep the heat in. During transport, keep the equipment in the warmest place available. When you arrive at your location, keep the batteries in pockets close to your body rather than in a cold case.
Keep the weight of your aircraft to a minimum by avoiding any additions you don’t need. This will help give you the maximum out of the aircraft’s batteries in the cold weather.
Prior to your flight, ensure that you have gone through your pre-flight checklist. Carefully check your propellers for any damage as the cold weather will put extra pressure on them. If there’s even minor damage, do not use them.
If you are prepared for your flight, it will help you avoid difficult situations and unnecessary pressure that adverse weather may cause.
Safe flying in winter is really just common sense. By following this simple drone survival guide you should be able to operate your drone safely in all conditions. The key points to remember are, wrap up warm, keep an eye on the weather, monitor battery performance and check your equipment. That way you’ll be able to keep flying safely no matter what the weather throws at you.
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