Drones and Thunder Storms Don’t Mix

It can be tempting to try to get in just a bit more flight time with your drone, even though you see that massive thunderhead rolling in, and hear the ominous rumblings beginning. After all, your drone has a decent weather-proof rating, and what are the chances that you or your drone will get struck by lightning anyway?

It is possible for drones to be struck by lightning. In the middle of an active thunderstorm, however, the odds of getting struck are not really that high, and in an open area below the clouds, the odds are even lower, but it is not unheard of, either. 

However, if your drone should happen to be struck by lightning, it probably won’t explode in midair, and might not even look any different from the outside. But, it will most definitely no longer be operational, and will most likely be beyond the point of repair. You also need to consider, however, before you decide to risk sacrificing your drone for some great storm footage, the risks involved for yourself in such a scenario.

Lightning and Drones

The majority of recreational drones are not rated for use in rain, high winds, or other types of extreme weather. This most definitely applies to flight in thunderstorms, where the risk of lightning strike is a real possibility. Lightning is unpredictable, and you would not be able to say with certainty that any flight in thunderstorm weather will result in a fried drone, and in fact the chances of a lightning strike are not actually that high. It doesn’t appear that the drone will attract a strike any more than an aircraft would. But if it should happen to be in the path of a lighting bolt, the electric current will pass through, doing damage on the way.

Modern aircraft is designed to be fairly well protected against lightning strike in ways that drones are not. They typically don’t have a metal casing, for one thing. The plastic cover offers no protection or resistance to such a powerful electrical current. In the event of getting struck, the current would follow the path of least resistance. In most cases this would be in through one motor, and through the wires from one motor to another.

Although instances of actual, in the field lightning strikes on drones are rare (though not unheard of), inquiring minds have done plenty of laboratory tests on the effects of lightning-level electrical currents on drones in flight. These types of tests reveal that drones cannot withstand lightning strikes and live to tell the tale. They will be damaged, and here’s what can happen.

Effects on the Drone: What to Expect

One laboratory test in Manchester, UK, revealed that the damage to a drone struck by lightning, surprisingly does a limited amount of damage to the plastic outer shell of the drone. It will not look like a twisted, melted, hunk of former-drone, as you might imagine in a cartoon rendition of the event. Neither were all the interior components completely fried. For instance, the battery seemed to escape mostly unharmed in one test, though not in another. The camera also appeared to be mostly undamaged. 

The rest of the functional parts of the drones tested however, were damaged beyond repair. Some things you can expect to see on a drone that has sustained a lightning strike include:

The plastic surrounding the compass header was quite severely damaged and the printed circuit board (PCB) for the compass was blackened; an unfortunate addition to the electrical BBQ. Regardless, I connected the compass module to my testing equipment but was unsurprised to see that it returned multiple electrical shorts – the whole of this part of the drone was dead.

Be Smart, Get Out of the Storm

Common sense says the card would be toast.. I have viewed several videos of aircraft lost in water, and completely shorted out , and later recovered where the card was still readable.  I would think that would be the least of my concerns though…..   As far as your remote,  Electricity will not travel through your drone to your remote via radio signals..   I would however, be aware of your surrounding while out in a t-storm, as not to put yourself in an unsafe situation…

Actually, if struck by lightning, the current would pass through the electronics circuits in the bird just like in a real aircraft. I used to work in the Air Force Atmospherice Electricity Hazard (I.e. Lighting) lab at WP where we deliberately flew into thunder storms in order to get struck. Even in the middle of a storm, it wasn’t that easy. Out in clear air the odds are really negligible. Our research showed that contrary to popular belief, planes didn’t initiate lightning strikes, rather they flew into the channel and became part of it with the return stroke, the part with all the current, then traveling to an in some cases through the aircraft. Modern metal aircraft are pretty well protected. Our phantoms would have no protection and if the same thing happened, the path of least resistance would be through the wires such as from the motor to the esc and out another motor. Not going to do the aircraft any good. And yes it could melt the plastic, the currents in a lightning strike can exceed 100000 amps! But again, the chances are so slim as to be ignored. The pilot on the ground is in more danger if there is a storm nearby. Standing out in an open field in a thunderstorm is definitely unhealthy.

I’d be far more concerned with sudden wind changes.

Elizabeth Ciobanu

Editor-in-Chief. Elizabeth is a full-time (homeschooling!) mom of four, and serial entrepreneur in a variety of enterprises, one of which is producing content for Droneblog. If free time existed, she would love to spend more time on hobbies such as flying a drone.

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