Wintertime is my favorite time of year. I love the snow and the outdoor activities that come along with it. However, when it comes to flying a drone in the snow, there are a few things you need to consider before popping in the battery and taking off.
Can you safely fly a drone in the snow?
Yes, you can, but it is not recommended. There are drones that can withstand some rain and snow, so check your owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer has to say about flying in harsh weather. Chances are pretty good they will advise against it.
That being said, there are steps you can take to ensure a safe and successful flight when it is snowing, so I’m going to walk you through some tips to keep your drone safe and dry when flying in snowy conditions.
1. Keep in mind the shorter battery life
Temperature impacts battery life in all electronics, including drone batteries. One of my drones will pop up a warning on the screen if it is too cold to fly and it will not take off until the batteries are warmed up to at least 15°C.
My other drones will give me a warning that battery life will be shorter due to cold temperatures. I have noticed about a 20 percent decrease in battery life when flying in freezing temperatures. Plan to have a much shorter flight than in warmer temps.
2. Warm your batteries before flight
One thing I usually do when flying in the wintertime is keeping my batteries warm for as long as I can. I will usually put the drone battery case near a radiator an hour or so before I head out, in order to get the batteries nice and warm. I will then keep them in my vehicle until I load them into the drone to ensure they stay as warm as possible for as long as possible.
I also ensure the batteries are fully charged before use, especially when it’s below freezing, and will start my return to home process sooner than I would in warm weather. This is easily achieved by setting the low battery warning to come on at 35% instead of 25-30% and as soon as that warning comes on start bringing the drone home.
3. Watch out for shorter battery life in controllers and devices
One of the biggest issues I have experienced when flying in the winter is the battery life on my tablet or phone is significantly shorter. When flying in the spring or summertime, the tablet or phone will last for a couple of hours of flying.
In below-freezing temperatures, it has a hard time staying on for more than 30 – 45 minutes and has turned off mid-flight, mid-mission multiple times. This is always a scary experience. Luckily, I have not had any drones drop out of the air due to the tablet or phone turning off, and have successfully landed them every time.
Be ready for this type of event, and have an emergency landing procedure in mind beforehand.
4. Keep the tablet warm
I was in Massachusetts flying a job at the end of December and had already postponed once before due to weather, so I needed to finish on this trip. It was about 15°F and I was able to keep most of my equipment warm inside the truck, but the tablet was being used out in the cold.
To prolong the life of the tablet battery in the cold, I strapped some hand warmers to the back of it. The warmth created by the hand warmers helped it to stay on long enough to finish the 40-minute flight, and then some.
5. Keep moving
Flying a drone while it is actively snowing can lead to some great footage. Flying through the air while the snow is flying by the camera lens looks very cool, and if you incorporate slow-motion effects, it gets even better.
The drone creates a sort of “bubble effect” around it while it is moving forward which keeps snow from building up on the body of the drone. If the drone is stationary for too long, snow will start to build up on the drone which can lead to moisture, and that’s when things get damaged.
I have found that as long as I keep the drone moving, I do not have any issues with snow buildup or moisture.
6. Clear the takeoff / landing area
Another consideration that needs to be addressed is, where can you safely take off and land the drone? Is there an area of clear ground that would be a good place to take off from? Would it be better to hand launch and hand land?
I personally don’t like to hand launch and hand land so I built a 30” diameter plywood helipad. I also have one of the soft foldable helipads, but I have found the plywood makes it much easier to pat down the snow around the helipad in case the drone misses the pad while landing. The size of the plywood helipad is a little cumbersome, however, it has worked great for me out in the snow.
If you are not opposed to hand launching/landing your drone, then that would probably be the best way to do it in the snow. It would help keep snow from getting into the motors or the gimbal when taking off, and would also keep the landing gear clean. The drone I fly regularly is a little bit big to hand launch, which is why I prefer to use the helipad.
7. Be aware of positioning sensor issues created by snow glare
Lots of drones use optical sensors to help with altitude hold, obstacle avoidance, and landing. These sensors are “vision-based”, so very bright or reflective surfaces can sometimes cause them to go on the fritz.
It is recommended to fly the drone higher than 15-20ft above reflective surfaces or snow to prevent the sensors from malfunctioning. Luckily, I have never experienced sensor issues due to snow, but am always aware that there is a greater chance of malfunction in the snow.
8. Remember the drone is only as safe as the pilot
I remember when I first started flying drones, I heard someone say “If you’re cold, the drone is cold”. This has been something I think about whenever I am flying in the winter and it’s a great reminder that temperature has a more significant impact on the drone than I initially thought.
Core temperature is important and will help keep the body’s extremities warm, which is why I layer my clothing before I head out to fly in the snow. I also wear touch-screen-friendly gloves while flying.
This is very much a personal preference, but I have found that I can still control the drone as needed with a light glove on. If it is really cold out, I will drop a hand warmer into the glove to keep my hands nice and toasty warm.
9. Make sure you can see
Another issue that can arise when flying in the snow is snow blindness. If it is sunny out and there is snow on the ground, I throw my sunglasses on to prevent any glare from the snow. I have forgotten my sunglasses before and had a headache by the time I got home from squinting while flying. I always keep a pair of cheap sunglasses in my drone kit now and they have saved me more than once.
10. Do a post-flight inspection
After flying my drone, I always perform a post-flight inspection. This quick check includes propeller inspection, gimbal/camera inspection, and I will wipe any dirt or moisture off of the drone.
The post-flight inspection after flying in the snow is the same, but I will also wipe any moisture off the outside of the drone, and make sure the landing gear is also clear of snow.
There is a risk of condensation forming when the drone is brought in from the cold which is why I will leave it out of its case for a few hours or overnight. This allows any moisture that may have formed on the inside of the drone to dry up before the next flight.
Drone photography in the snow
The auto settings on your drone will work pretty nicely for most of the shots you want to get under normal conditions. Depending on the weather you might need to adjust your camera settings to make the images brighter or darker.
If it is sunny out with snow on the ground, the images have a better chance of being overexposed. If the drone is flying while it is actively snowing, the camera might need to be adjusted to prevent the images from being too dark.
When the Auto-settings aren’t cutting it
Camera settings are something that can be adjusted in most of the higher-grade consumer drones available. I usually lower my shutter speed if I’m taking stationary images with the drone on a sunny winter day, or I’ll lower the aperture if it’s snowing out to brighten the image a bit.
This is something that varies by location, weather, personal preference, etc. There is no right answer as long as the image looks good to you.
Flying in the snow and cold is a great way to get a wintery feel in your shots, and if you follow a few extra steps, it can be done safely and successfully time and time again.
I love flying in the wintertime, which is a good thing since I live in Vermont and we get a longer winter than a lot of places in the United States. As long as I dress appropriately, keep my equipment warm and dry, and understand the battery life will be shorter, I know I will continue to have successful wintertime flights.