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If it's cold outside, here's what you need to know to operate your drone safely

If it's cold outside, here's what you need to know to operate your drone safely

DPReview News

Most modern drones are capable of handling weather cold enough to form ice. You still need to take extra precautionary measures to fly safely.

Photo credit: Kara Murphy

Every season provides countless opportunities to capture beautiful scenes with your drone's camera. When winter arrives, some parts of the world are decorated with picturesque icy formations and snowscapes. If you want to capture this beauty while it's available, understand that frigid weather will compromise your drone's overall performance.

Regardless of the season, you should always consult your manufacturer's guide before taking flight, and know the temperature extremes, both hot and cold, that your drone can handle. Sometimes it's possible to push past these limits. For example, while DJI's guide states that most of their models should not be flown in conditions that are below freezing (0ºC or 32°F), many users have done so with great success and posted the proof in a public forum.

With reward comes risk. In order to mitigate setbacks including losing your drone altogether, you'll need to take some necessary precautions. In this guide, we'll break down what you should know about operating in colder environments.

Only take off with a fully-charged battery

The good news is that most consumer drones, including Autel's EVO II, Nano+ and Lite+ and DJI's Mini series, Mavic Air 2, Air 2S and Mavic 3 series, are equipped to handle temperatures that dip below their recommended guidelines. The rest of the news is that in freezing weather you can count on your battery life being cut by up to 50% of a typical flight time.

When I captured the photos featured in this article with my standard Mavic 3, my usual 43 to 46-minute flight time fell to between 26 and 36 minutes. Battery levels can plummet unexpectedly in cold weather. Add strong winds and the possibility of a disaster increases. The last thing you want is to have your drone positioned over a body of icy water or a forest and suddenly find you don't have enough juice to bring it back safely.

Weather that can form this kind of ice will drain your batteries. Plan accordingly.

Photo credit: Kara Murphy

While you can get away with launching your drone with a half-charged battery in a more temperate environment, it simply isn't smart to do so when it's cold out. Make sure every single drone battery you use has a full charge.

Protect your cells

If you're flying in the spring, summer, or even fall, it's easy and convenient to have your extra batteries stored in a case right beside you. When it's extremely cold, however, you should keep those batteries someplace warm, as prolonged exposure to the cold will drain their energy. This is because most drones run on lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries. Low temperatures condense the solids and liquids inside them, slowing down their chemical reactions and reducing their discharge capacity. This can cause your drone to unexpectedly lose power in some circumstances.

I've heard of some people who store their extra batteries in a cooler in their car (without ice, obviously). Others will place them on the car's dashboard next to the heater vents. One friend even puts her case on top of her heated seats. Whatever method you choose, make sure your batteries are kept out of the elements. This means not leaving them in an unattended car for a long period of time.

Don't forget the drone's remote. Keeping it warm while you're using it will ensure it stays charged for a longer period of time. The warmth will also help with your hands, something you especially need to consider when standing outside for more than a brief period of time. Which brings me to the next topic:

Fly cozy with warm hands

Hand-and-remote gloves (insert hands at the bottom) keep both a little warmer a bit longer.

Regardless of how long your drone remains in the air when it's bitterly cold, there's no doubt that your fingers will give out much sooner. If you're using a smartphone or a screen on your remote to toggle between settings, you'll want thermal touchscreen gloves. Even the best pair will still leave you vulnerable to frostbite. Portable single-use heat packs that fit in a coat pocket are also a necessity if you want to keep the blood flowing.

Keep the drone bone dry

When there is snow on the ground, even a light dusting, you should launch from either your hand or a clean, dry surface such as a drone launching pad. A while back, I was especially intent on catching a sunrise. I took off from the snowy ground, and a minute later I got a 'gimbal motor overload' warning.

Helipads, or drone launch pads, range from $25 - $70 and are ideal for using when launching on surfaces that can compromise your drone's performance. This includes snow, pictured above, and sand.

Photo credit: Kara Murphy

As it turns out, the propellers kicked up some microscopic water droplets from the snow, which immediately froze onto the gimbal's surface once the drone was in the air. This tiny bit of added weight put stress on the gimbal, and when it returned to the ground I had to pick it off before I could re-launch. The sensors and propellers on your drone can also be compromised, so make sure you don't take off from a snowy or icy ground.

Investing in a helipad that you put away after each flight is a great way to keep moisture off your drone's moving parts.

Stay toasty, stay safe!

As drone technology continues to improve, these machines are likely going to perform better in all types of conditions. When it's cold, however, you need to take extra precautionary measures to protect yourself, your drone, and others around you. Your safety and comfort are important and no shot is worth the risk of frostbite or damaged equipment.