Just because winter has arrived, doesn't mean you have to put the drone away. If you're a photographer, this is a fantastic time of year to get those one-in-a-million winter shots. If you use a drone for other business purposes, you can't just shut down because the weather turned cold.
Whether you're a commercial or hobby user, here's everything you need to know about piloting your drone in the winter.
I'll go over a roundup of general tips and tricks to keep in mind for cold weather flying, and then suggest a couple of gadgets that you might want to consider adding to your arsenal. At the end, I've included a section just for aerial photographers, because although I'm trying not to play favourites, there are some important things that apply just to them.
First, there's one really important rule that you probably already know, but it's worth a little emphasis: never fly in precipitation. Moisture is your drone's worst enemy, and you want to avoid it as much as possible. Rain is especially bad, of course, but snow can also get into your machine. If that happens, it could ruin it for good.
There's another precaution you should take if you're flying in the cold. Check to see if your drone manufacturer has a minimum operating temperature for your model. Be aware that anything below that may constitute abnormal flight characteristics, and could void your insurance and warranty.
Winter flying isn't all gloomy, though. One benefit is that cold air is more dense than warm air, giving your drone a little extra pep.
The internet has a few general tips for flying in cold. Here are the best ones:
1. Don't let moisture get inside the UAV. Like I said, this is big. Most drones have a lot of vents and spaces where moisture can get inside the machine. Avoid flying in the rain and snow, and keep in mind if you land in a snowbank, you should ensure all of the excess snow is removed.
2. Don't add unnecessary weight to your UAV. As we'll discuss later, batteries drain faster in the cold. The harder they have to work, the shorter your flight time will be.
3. Dry your props before screwing them onto the machine to avoid ice from building up.
4. Don't fly into clouds or fog. Again, this has to do with avoiding moisture and preventing ice from building up.
Keep yourself warm
Of course, the first thing to keep in mind if you're going to be outside in winter for long periods of time is to stay warm yourself. Hats, scarves, jackets and boots will all be essential, but because you're flying a drone, you have to pay special attention to your hands.
You're going to need a pair of good gloves, and if they're equipped with touch-screen fingers on them, all the better.
Another item to have is hand warmers, or heat packs. Sometimes your own body heat just isn't enough, and you can get some that fit inside gloves to keep you warm in the cold. They're also handy to use with batteries, but we'll cover that later.
Finally, a transmitter glove (pictured below) might be a good idea if you want to keep those fingers nimble.
Batteries don't like being cold
This is by far the most important issue when it comes to flying in the cold. Batteries hate being cold, and it will show in their performance. You might have noticed how your phone loses its charge faster if you're out in the cold. Well, your drone battery is no different.
Here's a checklist you can use for battery maintenance in cold weather.
1. Inspect batteries for swelling and other damage. You shouldn't be using damaged batteries anyways, but a bad battery will be that much worse in the cold.
2. Charge battery all the way to 100%.
3. Keep batteries warm. Transport them in a heated environment, and don't put your spares on the cold ground. A good idea is to wrap them in a blanket with a hand warmer if ˇyou can't keep them on your person.
4. Bring a portable battery charger. This is an easy contingency plan to have in place in case you need a little extra juice in the event you lose power faster than you anticipated.
5. Hover your drone for a minute before flying. This gives it a chance to warm it up and ensures everything is working properly.
6. Avoid going up to full throttle, especially during the first few minutes of flight.
Gadgets that might help
Here's a small recap of items you should consider getting before you brave the elements with your drone.
Hand warmers — both for your hands and your batteries
Gloves with touchscreen fingers
Portable battery charger
Think through your photography
Aerial photography is a whole different ballgame in the winter. Here are two things to keep in mind when you're getting those bright winter shots.
1. Manually set exposure and white balance. Your camera's exposure meter is great when you're shooting in the summer, but when the landscape is full of bright, white snow, your camera can be tricked into thinking the scene is over-exposed, and will automatically dial down the exposure. The result can be over-exposed images, where the snow will look grey and details will be lost. The solution is to manually set your exposure. Petr Hejl at Dronevibes.com suggests over-exposing the image by 0.3-0.7 stop, then checking your photos after you take them. He goes on:
If your drone camera has exposure compensation feature, manually compensate the exposure at 0.3-0.7 stop over the metered value (so that the exposure value shows that the image is over-exposed by +0.3 to +0.7). White balance setting helps the camera interpret the snowy scenes to look white. Leaving it in auto may cause the snow to come out too amber or blue in your pictures. If your drone camera allows for manual setting of white balance, set it to 6500K for an average snowy landscape on a sunny day. Turn it up if the snow appears too blue, or down if it appears too amber.
2. Use neutral density filters for video.
Bright winter environment forces the fixed aperture cameras (typical on most consumer drones) to set the shutter speed too fast and turn your video into a jittery mess. For a good, natural motion-blurred look, the shutter speed should be roughly double your video frame rate. For example, at 30 frames per second you want your shutter speed to be as close to 1/60 as possible. This concept is called 180 degree shutter. Adding a Neutral Density filter helps limit the amount of light entering the camera, lets you choose slower shutter speeds, and help you create smooth looking videos.
Looking for more info? Here's where we did our research, you can check it out for yourself.
Keep your drone warm!
Don't forget, you're not the only one braving the elements. Bundle up your drone with a nice warm sweater from www.dronesweaters.com.