You wouldn’t think of leaving for vacation without bringing your camera with you, so why should you leave your drone behind either? Traveling with a drone has become quite commonplace as drones have become more widespread, and the rules for safe airline travel are fairly straightforward.
Essentially flying cameras, drones make great travel companions, provided you are equipped with the right information to know how to travel safely with them, and comply with the rules and regulations for drone flight wherever you happen to be going.
It can be a little bit daunting to sort through all the TSA and airline restrictions on batteries and such, but I’ve put together a bunch of helpful tips to make getting your drone packed up and through security a breeze. Don’t forget about the fun you’ll be having with your drone along with you on your trip and all the great pictures you can snap – just do a bit of homework before you go to make sure you know where you’re allowed to fly, and where you’re not.
Can I take my drone on a plane?
Airline travel with drones of all shapes and (most) sizes is permitted, and not even all that complicated. Different airlines, especially airlines in different countries, may have slightly varying rules about how the drone and its batteries should be packed and where they will go on the plane (in the cargo hold or in the cabin). Make sure to check up on any specific regulations that your airline may have about drones and lithium-ion batteries. Generally this information can be found on your airline’s website.
The real safety question when traveling with your drone is about the batteries. Lithium-ion batteries, which are the standard batteries used in most drones, run the risk of spontaneously catching on fire if the circuits malfunction. It’s the batteries, not the actual drone, that airlines are most concerned about being properly stored and carried while on a flight.
How to get a drone through airport security
If you’re worried about getting your drone through the TSA security check-point, you really needn’t be. Think of it like another piece of electronic equipment such as your camera. The TSA official statement on drones is as follows:
“Drones are allowed through the checkpoint. Please check with your airline for their policy.“
Basically, that means that getting your drone past the TSA security check should be a breeze. They may have a few questions about your batteries and may even want to see them, but even that is unlikely. If you’re polite, friendly, and straightforward, you’ll do well. Especially as the final decision is ultimately up to the individual TSA officer you’re working with:
“The final decision rests with the TSA officer on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint.”
The more important part to focus on is whether your airline has specific restrictions or regulations regarding flying with a drone, and making sure you’re complying with them.
How to pack a drone for air travel
Whether you plan to bring your drone with you in the cabin in your carry-on allowance, or check it in at the ticket counter, it’s a good idea to have your drone packed in a hard-sided case. This could be the one it came in, as they often come packed in polystyrene pieces that offer decent protection, or a purpose built traveling case or bag. The goal is to protect the drone from accidental bumps and jolts.
It’s also very important to make sure that the drone is switched off, the gimbal is clamped and the camera cover is securely in place. This will help prevent damage to the moving parts that could swing around if not properly secured.
It’s also a good idea to go over some routine maintenance and visual checks before packing up your drone to make sure there aren’t any issues with it that might be an easy fix at home, and a real pain in the neck to take care of away on travels. See our post on how to store and maintain your drone for an idea of what to check out for on your drone before packing it for flight.
Checked vs. Carry-on
If you’re bringing your drone with you on a plane, you are most likely going to want to take it with you as a carry-on item. After all, baggage stowed in the hold is treated none-too-gently. To take your drone with you as part of your carry-on allowance, I recommend putting it in a small hard-sided case inside your regular carry-on size suitcase or backpack.
If you’re not traveling with a small foldable drone, but a bigger one that takes up a bit more space, consider getting a dedicated hard shell case that is carry-on size. Or, if you’re taking a DJI Phantom, the polystyrene packaging box that it came in happens to be just the right size for a carry-on item!
If you simply don’t have room for your drone in your carry-on assortment (for example, if you’re traveling with a bunch of other photography gear), it is allowable (though less advisable) to pack your drone in your checked luggage. You could potentially do this with a hard-shell drone travel case. This has the disadvantage though of using up a whole checked luggage item, for one thing, not to mention the added cost of buying the case. But they do offer great padding and protection from rough handling.
Another alternative, and one that seems to work well, is to pack your drone inside a normal hard-sided case, and put that in the center of your suitcase (hard-shell or otherwise), surrounded by soft clothing. This offers a great level of protection against all of the bumping and jostling that will inevitably happen as the baggage is loaded and unloaded in the airplane’s cargo hold.
If you are packing your drone in your checked luggage, make sure that your battery is installed in the drone (provided the battery is under 100 Wh – if it’s over this you’ll need approval from the airline before you can travel with it in your checked luggage, even installed in the drone), and not packed up separately somewhere else in your checked luggage. If you don’t want your drone to travel with the battery installed, make sure you take the battery (and any spares) in your carry-on luggage.
Can I take spare drone batteries on an airplane?
You can bring spare LiPo drone batteries with you on the plane, but they must travel with you in your carry-on luggage in the cabin. The number of batteries you can take depends on the watt hours (Wh) of the batteries.
|Watt Hours (Wh)||Checked luggage?||Carry-on?|
|Under 100||Yes, if installed in the drone||Yes. FAA has no imposed limit. Number allowed depends on the airline.|
|100-160||Only if installed in the drone, with airline permission||Yes. FAA regulations limit to 2. Airline permission required.|
The information about the watt hours or voltage of your batteries can be found in your user manual or on the packaging material that your drone or your batteries came in. If you’re not sure about what the watt hours of your drone batteries are, you can calculate it by multiplying volts by ampere hours: Wh = V x Ah.
Or check out this list of common consumer drones with batteries under 100 Wh:
- DJI Mavic Pro
- DJI Phantom 3
- Yuneec Typhoon H
- DJI Phantom 4
- DJI Inspire 2
- Parrot Anafi
Here’s one over the 100 Wh limit:
- DJI Inspire 1 (129.96 Wh)
For this one you would need to have specific permission from the airline to travel with the battery installed in the drone in your checked luggage. You are limited to 2 spare batteries in your carry-on, and permission from the airline is still required.
How to pack drone batteries for air travel
For any spare batteries you are going to bring on the airplane in your carry-on, you need to make sure they are packaged securely for the safety of the flight and all on-board. Here are several options for safe air travel packing of your drone batteries:
- Original (unopened) retail packaging
- Cover battery terminals with tape
- Use a fireproof battery case or pouch
- Put them in a battery sleeve in a camera bag
- Securely wrap and tape up in bubble-wrap
It’s important that you check with your airline to see if they have any stated policies about how many batteries you can bring in your carry-on luggage, and how they must be packed.
Before packing up your batteries, if they’re not new and in their original package, first make sure they are at the right charge level. The ideal charge level for drone batteries to travel at is between 35-50%. It might seem annoying to have to charge up your batteries when you get to your destination before you can fly instead of doing it at home before you leave, but batteries stored for an extended period fully charged (or under-charged) can be permanently damaged, so taking this precaution is worth it.
Before you fly – research local laws!
As drone pilots we are all familiar with the importance of doing our homework about where it’s okay to fly. This continues to apply when on vacation, and even more so if your destination happens to be abroad. In the case of a trip overseas, take the time to do this before you leave, because that’s not how you will want to be spending your time once you’re there.
If you’re traveling to somewhere in the US, the FAA’s B4UFLY app, available for iOS and Android, is an important resource to help you find out where the off-limits areas are. It can show you your current location, or for planning drone flight locations for a trip, you can search for locations to see where the restricted zones are.
Another similar app, AirMap, has similar functions in letting you figure out where the restricted flight areas are. AirMap has the added advantage that it has more coverage, with both the US and over 20 countries worldwide covered.
Since none of these apps are going to be 100% accurate all the time, it’s a good idea to have a working knowledge of the drone flight restrictions at your destination in general. For example, in the US, you are not allowed to fly in National Parks, and many cities, including Washington, D.C. are off-limits. The UK has an updated drone code outlining where you may and may not fly a drone, as does the EU, with a recently released set of regulations. DJI also has a fairly comprehensive listing of drone laws by country to help with your pre-travel research.
How to get your drone through customs
While there are many countries where you can fly your drone without hindrance, there are some where you definitely cannot, so don’t even bother taking your drone with you if you’re headed there. If you do, it may be confiscated at customs, where it may or may not be returned to you when you’re leaving the country. These are the 15 countries where drones are currently banned:
Algeria, Barbados, Brunei, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Morocco, Nicaragua, Senegal, Syra, and Uzbekistan.
There are quite a few countries where drones are not banned, but there are no specific regulations in place. Don’t assume that means it’s okay to fly wherever you want. No drone laws in many cases means that the general attitude is antagonistic at best. Bear in mind that you run the risk of having your drone confiscated at customs, in many cases at the whim of the customs officer.
If you’re traveling to a country with clearly defined drone laws, make sure you familiarize yourself with these laws before you leave home. Some things to check into and find answers for include:
- Do you need to register your drone with that country’s aviation authority?
- Are there foreigner-specific regulations about drone operations?
- Do you need to have a drone license or certification to fly legally?
- What are the general rules about where drones may be operated?
Personal Effect Taken Abroad
If you are concerned about re-entry to the US and if there will be any question about whether your drone is one that you took with you, or purchased while abroad (and thus subject to import taxes), a good solution is to register your drone with Customs as a Personal Effect Taken Abroad.
This process involves filing a form, and taking your item to the customs office at your airport of departure (or any US Customs office). The customs official will record a description of your item and record its serial number, and stamp the form, which you can then present upon your return as proof of previous ownership. The good news, if you go through the hassle of filing this registration, is that it can be used for more than one trip, as long as it’s for the same item.
What happens if you break the rules?
It might be tempting to “risk” getting your drone up in the air for a quick shot, even though you know you’re technically in a no drone zone. Aside from making the rest of us look bad, this is a bad idea considering the financial consequences should you get caught. In the US, if you are caught flying your drone in a national park, it is classified as a misdemeanor, and can get you a maximum fine of $5,000 and six months in jail.
Snubbing local laws about drone flight in Britain could earn you a fine of up to £2,500 (over $3,000), and in Japan you’re looking at up to 500,000 yen, or about $4,700. Not only the fines, but you could get your drone confiscated (to be returned or not). Between the money, the time in a police station, and the possible loss of your drone, it’s quite a spectacular way to ruin your trip, so don’t risk it – just follow the rules.
If you do make an honest mistake, as in you thought it was a safe flight zone, but you are stopped by the police, be polite and apologetic. With the right attitude, chances are good that you may be able to diffuse the situation.
Be a considerate drone traveler
You wouldn’t want a complete stranger to show up in your backyard and start nosing around, so be considerate of others in the places you are traveling to and filming or photographing from the air. Even in places that seem remote, bear in mind that it may be someone’s “backyard”. Here are a few tips to follow on your trip that will help you to be a considerate drone traveler:
- Don’t fly near crowded areas (even if technically permitted). Who wants to show up at a tourist destination only to hear the buzzing of a drone?
- Don’t disturb the local wildlife, especially endangered species.
- Respect people’s privacy. Don’t fly near apartment buildings, public beaches, etc.
- Always keep your drone in sight. It’s probably a local drone law anyway.
- Ask permission to fly on private property. It may or may not be required, but it’s the courteous thing to do.
Often courtesy to others, whether traveling or at home, is a matter of mindset and attitude as much as it is the right actions. Be pushy and obnoxious, and you’ll ruin it for everyone. But have a humble and open attitude toward those you meet as you’re looking for the right place to fly your drone, and you’ll go far. The world is waiting for you – grab your drone and get going!