Brrr! Advice for Flying a Drone in Cold Weather: Taking Care of Your Batteries and Yourself This Winter
BY Zacc Dukowitz19 January 2018
Brrr! This winter has been especially cold, and it’s no surprise that many of you have been reaching out to us with questions about best practices for flying a drone in cold weather.
Battery care is the biggest factor when flying in the cold, but it’s also important to take care of yourself. Below are some key pieces of advice for how to make sure you’re ready to fly this winter.
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that it’s simply riskier to fly your drone in cold weather than warm weather.
Why? Because LiPo batteries don’t work well in cold weather. The colder it is, the shorter your battery life will be due to the slowing down of the chemical activity within the battery.
This is not to say you shouldn’t fly at all when it’s cold out, but just that you should go into a cold weather flight having taken the proper precautions, and knowing that it’s riskier than it would be if the weather was warm.
Taking Care of Your Batteries
What is a LiPo battery?
Most quadcopters use lithium-polymer, or LiPo, batteries.
LiPo batteries are ideal for situations where weight matters—like flying a drone!— because they weigh 20% less than cylindrical NIMH cells of the same capacity. They also have higher capacities than other types of batteries, which means they’re more powerful, and they have higher discharge rates, so they pack more of a punch.
On the other hand, they’re pretty sensitive. Overcharging LiPo batteries can be hazardous, and even lead to the battery catching on fire. Remember when the Samsung Galaxy was banned from airplanes not too long ago because their batteries were spontaneously burning up? Well, that’s because the Galaxy uses Lithium Ion batteries, which have high energy densities and cost less than LiPo batteries, but rely on similar technology.
LiPo batteries work on the principle of intercalation and de-intercalation of lithium ions from a positive electrode material and a negative electrode material, with the liquid electrolyte providing a conductive medium.
Say what? OK, the science behind how LiPo batteries work may be a little jargon-heavy, but the bottom line is that they rely on chemical reactions that are sensitive to the weather. So cold matters, and heat does too.
But don’t worry—your LiPo batteries should be fine if cared for properly.
In cold weather the chemical reactions that allow LiPo batteries to work slow down, which lowers their overall capacity. Where a fully charged LiPo battery could provide 20-25 minutes of flight time in warmer weather (59°F or above), in colder weather flight time could drop to 10-15 minutes or lower.
Here are some things to keep in mind regarding your LiPo batteries when flying in the cold:
Pay attention to the temperature.
As noted above, LiPo batteries don’t work well in cold weather.
The colder it is, the shorter your battery life will be due to the slowing down of the chemical activity within the battery. You’ll start to see decreased performance at 59°F (15°C) or colder.
If it’s below 14°F (-10°C), LiPo usage is not recommended at all (i.e., no flying!), since your battery could cause your drone to suddenly fail without warning in these temperatures.
In talking to our CEO Alan Perlman, he told me that he took off in 20° weather with a fully charged battery, and after just 2-3 minutes his battery had dropped to 79%. He flew for about 10 minutes in total and landed just fine with battery to spare, but it was interesting to see that immediate drop after take off.
Battery storage is crucial.
The following is excerpted from a Drone Pilot Ground School lecture on caring for LiPo batteries:
Temperature matters. Always store your LiPo batteries in a cool, dry place. Shoot for room temperature. Do not store them in a hot garage or in a refrigerator. Even though a cold battery has less chemical reactions taking place, and this can prolong its lifespan, taking a battery out from a cold fridge can cause condensation to occur on the inside of the battery, which can be very dangerous. And while cold can be damaging, so can heat. The hotter your batteries get, the shorter their lifespan will be. Never charge a battery that is still warm from usage, and never use a battery that is still warm from charging.
Here are a few more tips for storage:
- Make sure to disconnect the batteries when you’re not using them, and store them in a fireproof container.
- Don’t story batteries in extreme cold or heat, including sunlight. The ideal temperature range for storage is 14°F to 113°F.
- If storing for a long period of time without any use (i.e., several months or more), ideal temperature range is 73°F to 82°F.
- Don’t store loose batteries together. This could lead to the terminals touching, which might cause a short circuit.
Bottom line, be thoughtful not just about what you do right before you fly (which we’ll get into below) but also about how you care for and maintain your batteries between flights.
For more advice on storage and charging, check out this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.
Warm your batteries.
It’s a good idea to warm your batteries before flying. The target temperature should be about 75°F (25°C).
We recommend using a battery heater like this one we found on Amazon:
If you don’t have a battery heater, hand warmers can be an OK alternative for warming your batteries (though not ideal).
But be warned—don’t ever put hand warmers in direct contact with your batteries. Make sure to cover your batteries in something that will protect them from the heat the warmers put off, like a shirt, towel, or some other kind of material.
Keep your flights shorter than usual.
Because the cold weather will shorten your battery life, make sure to avoid flying for very long.
To enable shorter flights, make sure to plan ahead and know exactly what you want to shoot. This way you can go up, get your shot, and get down without risking a crash due to battery failure.
A good rule of thumb is that the colder it is, the shorter your flight should be. Alan was able to fly for 10 minutes in 20° weather, but we’ve had some other pilots tell us they only risk 30-60 seconds at a time when they fly in 20° weather (in addition to initial hovering).
Don’t be afraid to experiment a little and see what flight times seem to work best for you and the specific temperatures you’re flying in—but remember, the shorter the better.
Taking Care of Yourself
Keep your hands warm
Frozen thumbs can be just as risky for a safe flight as frozen batteries. Remember that it’s not just your drone you have to take care of, but the pilot as well—meaning, yourself of course. 🙂
We recommend buying gloves made just for flying in the winter, which will allow you to keep your hands warm but also maintain enough sensitivity for flying.
Alternately, you can buy a transmitter glove like the one sold by Amazon pictured below. Yes, it looks a little funny, but weigh that against keeping your hands toasty and limber while keeping your thousand-dollar drone up in the air. Seems like a small price to pay.
Hover your drone for around 30-45 seconds before flying.
Hovering is one more way to help your batteries warm up before flying. Here is what Mad_Angler1 wrote on our community forum regarding how long it took to heat up his Mavic’s batteries while hovering:
On the battery the Mavic won’t arm when the pack temperature is below 15C, ideal temp is 20-30c and basically if you take off between 15c and 20c then just hover a minute or two until it gets to 20. It won’t take long.
Hovering is good for your batteries, but it also allows you a few moments to check in with yourself, and see how you’re doing as a pilot flying in cold conditions.
Do you have enough feeling in your fingers to fly competently? Are you confident that you can control your drone in these conditions? Hovering presents a good opportunity for making sure you’re ready to fly.
Still have questions about flying in the cold? Post them to our community forum, where you can connect with other drone pilots who might be able to help.