As a fairly new drone pilot I’m still learning the ins and outs of travelling with a drone, but I thought I would share with you some of my experiences so far! I bought a DJI Spark because it’s one of the smallest drones out there, yet still produces good images and videos! One of my biggest priorities when I bought it, was that it had to be small enough to be able to travel with easily! But it’s not as simple as getting on a plane and then sending it up when you arrive in the destination, there’s a lot to consider.
Travelling With A Drone
If you’re travelling with a drone, there’s a high chance you’ll be getting on a plane with it at some point. The first time I flew with it I was travelling from Chicago, USA to London, UK with Norwegian Airlines. I simply reached out to them on Twitter and asked if it was OK to fly with a drone…
Their biggest concern was that it fitted within my cabin baggage dimensions, which the Spark is tiny so for me that wasn’t a problem, and then the battery size, again the Spark batteries are pretty small.
When you buy a Spark, it comes with a polystyrene carry case. It’s big enough to fit the drone, has 2 battery compartments (well they are more like holes as it’s just a box) and somewhere to store spare blades. I had read online about travelling with ‘larger’ lithium ion batteries and decided my best bet was to detach the battery so there was no chance of them creating a circuit on the drone during a flight. I only have 2 batteries so this worked fine in my situation. For those worried that maybe the polystyrene box isn’t protective enough, it rolled out of my backpack and bounced down every step of a concrete staircase and suffered zero damage (including the box)!
I fly my DJI Spark using an iPod. This saves a little bit of space as I’m not flying with a controller!
(I tend to use the case as a launching pad…I need to get into the habit of moving it out of shots…!)
I’ve read that different airlines have different policies when it comes to drones. For the most part I believe they are OK, but there are some that have the ‘electronics ban’ which do require drones to be carried in checked baggage.
From an airport security point of view that deal with a lot of different airlines, I had no problems at Chicago O’Hare, London Gatwick, Sydney Australia and Tokyo Japan airports. I just removed the carry case from my hand luggage bag and put it in the tray just like I would with a laptop or a Kindle and they didn’t even bat an eyelid at it. While waiting to check in on the way back from Gatwick, the staff always do extra security checks on flights to America, I was asked if I was carrying any electronics such as laptops or Kindles and I said yes a Kindle and a drone and I was asked the following questions:
- Had anyone else borrowed my drone?
- Was it in good working order?
- Had it been sent off for repair while I was in the country?
No, no and no, I was good to go.
Checking Drone Laws in Different Countries
It’s important to check the drone laws for different countries. If you fly for a hobby then it’s often not that difficult to travel with a drone. For example, in the USA you must register the drone with the FAA to fly an ‘unmanned aircraft system’ (UAS) under 55lb as a hobby (FYI a DJI Spark weighs 0.66lbs), it costs $5 for 3 years and you have to have your registration number written on the drone. If you want to use it for commercial then you have to get a proper pilot’s license. Even since I registered back in October 2017 they have changed the wording. When in the UK and Australia I didn’t need to do anything if flying for hobby purposes.
(You’ll be surprised by how much of Queensland and NSW in Australia is actually a National Park! Taken at Barrenjoey Lighthouse, part of the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park just outside of Sydney, Australia)
Most rules are fairly similar regardless though: fly under 400ft, don’t fly at night, don’t fly over crowds, keep it in your line of sight. DJI has a flight map on their website where to can see some of the official ‘Geo Fences’. These mainly cover a 5 mile radius around airports which are no fly zones. It’s handy to check a flight map before you attempt to fly. A quick Google will often come up with the answer of other people’s experiences travelling with a drone. When researching Japan, it’s fine to fly but the majority of the public gardens and parks within Tokyo are a no fly zone. National Parks in the USA and Australia are a no go. Turks and Caicos looks fine etc.
(Japan may suck when it comes to drone graphics compared to Australia but even if you can’t speak Japanese it’s still pretty obvious that it means no drones. Taken at Narita-san Shinsho temple near Tokyo in Japan)
UVACoach is a good site to give you an idea of some of the laws, otherwise I like the DJI forum.
Battling With The Technology When Travelling With A Drone
I bought my drone in the USA and for the most part have never had any problems when it comes to flying my Spark. I just switch it on and it all connects up fine. When I took it to England, my iPod and Spark just would not play ball. My iPod could never find my Spark’s WiFi that’s used to fly the drone. After some Googling, it seemed to be that Europe uses a different frequency to USA and my Spark knew it was in a different location.
To fix this problem, EVERY SINGLE TIME I fired up my drone I had to do the following:
- Switch it on as normal
- Press and hold the on button for approximately 9 seconds and wait for “…..beep….beep beep….beep beep beep”. As soon as the set of 3 beeps stop, let go of the button and switch the Spark off.
- Start it up again and the iPod should then find the WiFi
I also found that in the iPod WiFi settings, it would show that I was connected to the Spark but it would then say ‘No Internet Connection’, BUT it would still work when entering the DJI Go4 app and it would still fly. I did notice though that the video feed on my iPod seemed to be a bit ‘laggy’ and I did lose the picture at one point. When flying I always keep an eye on the stats and what not and it seemed that the signal was kinda weak and I couldn’t fly it as high.
Charging a Drone Overseas
If you travel a lot, you have probably come across things like this in the past. For example UK electrics run on 240volts where the USA only works on 110v. This means that British products such as hair straighteners won’t often heat up hot enough when you travel to somewhere like the USA. When I first bought my Spark I would charge it with a USB lead and plug…it would take 4 HOURS to charge the battery. I then purchased the charging strip that plugs into the mains and can charge 3 batteries at once. This usually takes around 90 minutes to fully charge 2 batteries. The charging hub has a US plug so I use a worldwide adaptor to be able to plug it into mains outlets around the world. Charging time in the UK was faster by around 30 minutes. I bought a travel adaptor that has a surge protector just incase, as the batteries are expensive. Some of the cheaper adaptors don’t have the surge protector feature.
Flying a Drone in Different Climates
This is especially important when flying a drone like the Spark that only has a 15 minute battery life. In cold temperatures, the battery drains faster…although when attempting to control a touch screen iPod in temperatures below freezing I find that the drone lasts longer than my fingers. It also drains faster in high winds because it has to work harder to stabilise itself. The drone will let you know if it’s flying in gusts above 30mph. I’m yet to fly it in extreme heat, so I’m not sure how it handles ‘getting hot’! I will update after some of my summer travels!
Choosing Where to Fly & Receiving Attention
Drones are loud. When you fly them people are likely to be able to hear it. Flying locally you often get a feel of how people may react to a drone or where are ‘safe places’ to fly them. It’s surprising how when you travel with a drone, you start looking at places in a completely different way…what’s the surface like to take off on, are there trees or power cables overhead, is the view from above going to make a good shot, are there any patterns that’d look good from ‘up there’?!
I recently visited a National Trust property in the England, I wasn’t sure how it would go down flying there so I purposely stayed away from the RSPB bird area so I didn’t disturb the wildlife, and I picked an already noisy area (due to a small waterfall weir) that would cover up the sound of the drone.
Although you may not be flying over a crowd, the chances are someone will be in the area at some point during the flight. I’ve found that for the most part people are like ‘ha! That’s cool!’ and will just walk on or I’ll just quickly show them the screen of what I’m seeing, this also shows them that I’m not filming them without their permission as the camera is tilted too high to capture them etc. Some will stop and ask more questions and I love the fact it’s an awesome conversation starter (shout-out to the guy from Mason City, IA that now follows me on Facebook because of our little meeting)! I feel that being open and friendly about it will ‘keep people sweet’. If I’m coming into land I’ll also hold it at a height to allow them to pass, rather than making them stop for me to finish what I’m doing, especially if they have dogs (I’ve recently read that dogs don’t really like the pitch of the drone. Birds don’t like drones either).
Countries I’ve flown in:
Turks and Caicos Islands
(Travelled through both Tokyo Airports hassle free)
If anyone has any resources for being a travel blogger and flying commercially, please let me know! I still fly as a hobby so I make no money on the photos and videos that I take. But in Australia one of their rules was that commercial pilots need an Australian license…which you can only get if you’re a resident so it’s a bit of a grey area, I’d like to know how travellers that sell their photos taken in various countries get round this!
What are some of your experiences? I’ll keep this post updated with my experiences, the more I travel with it!