Traveling with a drone at home or abroad? If you’re in the dark about what you can and can’t take with you, or where you can and can’t fly, we’ve provided a guideline for both international and domestic travelers as well as a few quick tips for capturing quality content on-the-go.
Create a Checklist
Make a list of the equipment you need for your drone, including tools and spare parts. For example, from experience, we’ve added gaffer’s tape to our list of essential gear. It’s about as strong as duct tape without leaving sticky residue, and comes in handy in a pinch. We’ve used it to cover spare battery terminals at the airport and for quick in-field fixes, like taping cracked landing bars. Keep in mind, we use tape as a temporary fix so we can get the job done, making any necessary replacements as soon as possible.
Include any necessary drone and camera gear on your list, like filters, lens hood, lens wipes, charge cables, remote controller, spare batteries, props and parts, and any other accessories important to your mission.
Once the list is complete, go though it again and ask yourself for each item, do I really need this? It’s important to be prepared, but not burdened by your gear. Take only what you need.
Know Your Drone
Some drones are easier to travel with than others. If you have multiple drones, the easiest drone to take with you is probably the one you know best. If you don’t know how to fly your drone, at least learn the basics before you set off.
There are many great auto flight and capture features integrated into most consumer drones today, but you don’t want to rely solely on these auto pilot functions, especially in an unfamiliar location. If you are on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, you want to be present for the journey, not glued to your operating manual.
If you spend too much time figuring out to how to capture a moment, you may miss the moment altogether. Be present. Furthermore, if you don’t know the ins and outs of your drone, you put your drone, yourself and those around you at risk. This is especially true when you’re somewhere you’ve never been. At the very least, learn to fly your drone in Manual mode. Remember, accidents do happen, but the more prepared you are, the quicker you’ll get that bird back up in the air.
Know the Local Drone Laws
A quick Google search will provide resources to check the rules and regulations for UAVs in your local area, and also in the area that you’re traveling to. One such resource is the FAA’s B4UFLY app, available for free download in the iOS and Google Play app stores. B4UFLY provides up to date info on current regulations and restrictions for locations in the US. When traveling abroad, be sure to research the drone laws in the countries you are visiting. It’s best to know the local laws beforehand so you can make any necessary preparations and be good to go when you arrive on location. Do your research!
Cache Flight Maps
Offline access to your flight maps is paramount in isolated locations where you don’t have an internet connection. If you don’t cache your maps beforehand, you may be flying blind. Whether you’re going out for the day or going out of country, it’s a good to get into the habit of cacheing your maps for offline access.
Get a Case Suited for Your Mission
If you’re on a quick weekend getaway or day trip, you may just need something to throw your drone in to be on your way. For quick jaunts, we recommend using a streamlined soft case that you can toss inside a day pack. There are also soft cases that you can strap to the outside of your pack to free up space and provide quick access. If you aren’t carrying a pack or would like more protection, try a rugged hard shell case.
A good hard case will provide ample foam support for your drone with room for extra batteries, props, your remote controller, and other accessories essential to your mission. It’s also smart to get a case that locks and looks discreet, especially if riding public transportation. The last thing you want is to draw unwanted attention to your expensive equipment. If humid or inclement weather is an issue, choose a case equipped with water-resistant seals to lock out moisture.
Keep your Batteries Warm in the Cold
If traveling in cold temperatures, the best place for your batteries is inside a warm pocket. Insulation will keep your batteries from draining in frigid temperatures. If keeping your batteries in a case, put them in a winter sock. Some pilots even throw hand warmers in their cases. Just make sure the hand warmers don’t come into direct contact with any of your sensitive electronics. Put the hand warmers in a mesh pocket or sock. Remember, most consumer drones aren’t designed to fly in freezing temperatures, so make sure to double check your operating manual for specific flight guidelines.
If a case isn’t really your thing, another great option is a drone dedicated backpack. There are a multitude of models available, from small daypacks to backcountry style trekking packs that can expand to hold a week’s worth of gear.
At the Airport, Keep What’s Most Valuable With You
To avoid losing or damaging your drone, keep what is most valuable with you when flying domestic or international. This includes your memory cards, camera gimbal, batteries, remote, and extra props. If you have to check anything, check the drone body. It’s the biggest and also the strongest part of the aircraft. For example, you probably won’t be able to take DJI’s Inspire 2 on board, but you can check it inside a large, padded hard case, such as the one that DJI provides when purchasing this model.
Again, a drone dedicated backpack is a great way to stay organized. With all of your drone gear in one place, you can quickly unpack security sensitive equipment like your tablet/monitor, laptop, camera and gimbal, drone body and any other electronics you may be carrying. Most drone backpacks are designed to meet carry-on restrictions and feature a combination lock and also a TSA lock that airport security can access to easily inspect your items without compromising your combination code. The airport authorities will thank you (or not). Having all your drone stuff organized in one place makes it easier to move through airports, and quicker to set up once on location.
Flying With LiPo Batteries
It’s good to pack smart no matter where you are traveling, but this is especially important for airline passengers. LiPo batteries used by most drones and other consumer electronics can combust, so airlines won’t allow you to check them, and you’ll need to carry them with you. Cover the battery terminals,(we use our gaffer’s tape) and seal the batteries inside a fire proof, battery-dedicated bag. A battery bag will protect you and those around you from accidents. To further reduce the risk of an accident when flying, it’s also smart to drain the batteries before arriving at the airport.
The number of batteries you can take with you depends on their size. LiPo batteries up to 100 watt hours are not restricted, so long as they are for personal use only and not for resale or commercial samples. This includes pretty much all consumer drone batteries, however, there are some exceptions like the DJI TB48 Intelligent Flight Battery for Inspire series drones that is 129.96 watt hours. For larger batteries like the TB48, airlines allow up to 3 batteries in total. That’s one battery installed in the drone, and two spares, properly stored in your carry-on. And even if you aren’t flying to your destination, you should always transport your batteries safely.
Practice Proper Flight Etiquette and Immerse Yourself in Local Culture
Nothing draws attention abroad or around the block more than an inexperienced pilot trying to start up their aircraft. It might sound obvious, but you want to operate your drone as quietly and smoothly as possible. Blend into the scene you want to capture. You also want to be able to utilize your skills on-the-fly, as it were, so that you can visualize a shot, send up your drone, take care of business, and be on your way. Those around you will appreciate your quick work. In our experience, locals are more likely to strike up a friendly conversation with you if you act professional. They might even offer some local knowledge that will get you off the beaten path and capturing truly unique content. If flying in your own backyard, be a good representative of your local community. Set a good example for those visiting. For most, a drone is an exciting thing to see in action and can be a great conversation starter, abroad and at home.
Familiarize Yourself With Basic Photography and Videography Principles
It seems like everyone we know has drone now, and that’s not a bad thing. But to capture content that stands out from the crowd, you should clue yourself in to some photography and videography basics. First, know when to shoot. This is dependent on the time of day as well as the current weather conditions. A popular time to shoot photos and videos is about an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. This time frame is referred to as the Golden Hour, when the sun gives off a red, warm glow. Depending on your location, the length of the Golden Hour may be shorter or longer.
If you are shooting during the middle of the day, you’ll need some neutral density filters. These will help cut down the amount of light entering your camera for smooth videos and properly exposed photos. The most popular way to shoot drone video is to have shutter speed double that of your frame rate. In cinema, this is referred to as the 180 degree shutter rule.
One more filter you should have is a circular polarizing filter. This filter reduces glare from reflective surfaces like water and snow, or wet landscapes like rainforests or beaches. By reducing direct glare, a polarizer brings back saturation in scenes suffering from flat, low light.
If the technical aspects of shooting with your drone sound a little daunting, you’re not alone. The good news is that there are some great resources like the PolarPro Filter Calculator app. This app is available for free on the iOS and Google Play app stores, and helps you decide which filter to use based on your camera settings and the current light conditions. The app also provides current weather and an hourly forecast, as well as a KP index, which measures the risk of electromagnetic activity interfering with your drone’s GPS.
Now that you know the basic guidelines for traveling with a drone, don’t forget to stay up to date on current rules and regulations regarding drones. This includes knowing the FAA travel guidelines to make your way through airports but also knowing where you can and can’t fly at your destination. Maintain an up to date cache of your flight maps in the DJI Go 4 app or other flight programs you use to operate your drone. Also keep firmware up to date, on both your drone and remote controller to avoid any potential lags or glitches caused by outdated firmware.
It’s not only important to be up to date on the rules and regulations that surround UAVs but also to maintain a knowledge of your own drone. Practice in the comfort of your own backyard or somewhere safe and familiar. When you are ready to venture into the world-at-large, make a checklist of the equipment you’ll need to have a successful mission, including spare props, parts and tools. With confidence in your skillset and the knowledge of the resources available to you, you’ll be ready to fly anywhere (well, almost anywhere).