Every drone pilot eventually faces challenging environments. Here, a pro’s best tips for flying a drone in the wind, cold, and other problematic conditions.
The following is a guest post by Jason Steinberg, CEO of Scanifly: the only drone-based solar software committed to improving the efficiency, accuracy and safety of solar projects globally. DRONELIFE neither accepts nor makes payment for guest posts.
4 Environmental Challenges Every Drone Pilot can Master
Drone flying today is automated to the point where drone pilots don’t have to do much after take off. Between the free DJI Go 4 app, DroneDeploy’s app customizations, the Skydio 2’s self-flying features and others, many aspects of drone flying can be streamlined. However, flying in difficult environmental conditions can end in lower-quality photos and potentially detrimental damage to your drone.
Here are tips for navigating the toughest of conditions:
1. Flying in intense heat or chill
At its core, a drone is a piece of electronic equipment. When it comes to temperature, the biggest things you need to worry about are battery life and heat tolerance.
Handling cold temperatures
On average, you might see a drone battery drop 1-2% per 30 seconds of active flying. In cold weather, that can jump to 10% per 30 seconds. One way to counteract cold weather is by bringing multiple batteries with you during a flight, and keeping the extras warm in a glove compartment so they don’t lose capacity in the cold. Additionally, making sure to change out batteries when they drop below 70% is important to prevent a massive battery life drop and drone damage.
Handling extreme heat
Drones can operate in hot temperatures (for example, the DJI Mavic Pro and Phantom 4 list operating temperatures of up to 104F), but the challenge comes from extreme heat in your car and managing humidity. To maximize drone usability, it’s recommended to place drone batteries in a cooler to avoid having them get damaged by humidity.
Further, keep flights as short as possible and recalibrate your parts – drone, camera, smartphones, and batteries – regularly.
2. Flying around dense vegetation and trees
If you’re in a spot with a lot of vegetation or trees, make sure to prepare correctly ahead of time and take extra consideration on flight day.
Preparation before the flight
The best preparation you can do is to anticipate an accident. That means: bring propeller guards, spare props, and even a backup drone just in case. Make sure you have GPS mode set up on the drone to navigate more easily and RTH mode on so you can easily recall the drone before something happens. Here is a brief video outlining these considerations.
Setting up your flight
Find the most open place you can for take off and landing. Then set up a point of interest flight path on the building you’re surveying. Many drones, like the Skydio 2, have object avoidance built into their software when on POI mode, which will help you a lot.
What to do if you crash
First, locate your drone. If you’re concerned it could fall (i.e. out of a tree), secure the area below so no one is hurt. Then reclaim it – either on your own or by calling a tree climber. Once you have it back, assess damage to propellers and the drone body itself. If you have any visible damage, use your backup drone to finish any work, and make sure to get technical support from the drone manufacturer (or your company’s drone support desk, if you have one).
3. Flying in suboptimal lighting conditions
If you’re flying in suboptimal conditions – either too bright or too dark – there are a few things you can do to ensure you still get high quality images.
Apply filters as needed
If you’re operating in full sun that washes out your building, use a Neural Density (ND) filter, which basically acts like sunglasses for your drone camera. In low light, adjust the ISO, which is the camera’s sensitivity to light. Typically, try to keep it as low as possible, since a high ISO can cause graininess. However, in low light situations, increasing the ISO can brighten the image. Here’s a demonstration video of how to apply those filters.
Adjust the aperture
Aperture is how much light the camera lets in. The more open it is, the more light the camera absorbs. Close the aperture more on very bright days to minimize light coming in, and open it up wider on low-light days to maximize light coming in.
Adjust shutter speed
Shutter speed dictates how much light the camera “sees” when taking a picture. If you have a slower shutter speed (meaning the shutter is open longer during a photo), more light will come in, making it ideal for a low-light day. If you find your images are washed out, try increasing shutter speed to limit the amount of light coming into your pictures.
4. Flying in high wind conditions
Wind conditions can be lethal to drones, especially since the average commercial drone weighs between 1-3 lbs and can be easily tossed around in the sky.
Avoid high winds and keep an eye on battery life
If you’re just beginning with drones, it’s usually best to avoid operating in wind speeds above 10-15 mph. After you get comfortable with drones, it’s fairly easy to operate in winds as high as 20 mph. However, the real problem is not wind speed but wind gusts: check the weather forecast for blustery winds that could knock you out of orbit.
Also keep an eye on your battery life, since flying back in a headwind will take up much more battery capacity than flying in windless conditions.
Think about wind at different altitudes
Wind speeds vary widely at different altitudes. You might have a 5-10 mph wind near the ground that escalates to 50 mph once you’re up 200 feet. When you plan out your flights, check both wind speeds at different altitudes (you can do that via the Aviation Weather Center) and consider the altitude you need to fly at for the building you’re surveying.
Steady the drone before taking pictures
Once you get the drone up, take a few seconds to stabilize the drone before starting to take pictures. If the drone is wobbly due to wind, the pictures will likely be grainy, blurry, or otherwise low quality, making them useless from a 3D modelling perspective.
Humans bridge the technology gap
While technology cannot solve every problem, good drone piloting can. Thankfully, the key to success with any of these challenges is simply practice: while you should never fly if you don’t feel safe flying, you can handle all these tough climates after you get more experience with drones.
Jason Steinberg is the CEO of Scanifly and oversees the operational and financial aspects of the company. Scanifly is the only drone-based solar software committed to improving the efficiency, accuracy and safety of solar projects globally. Previously, Jason helped finance over $3 billion of renewable energy projects and companies as a banker for CohnReznick Capital. Prior to that, Jason worked for Bloomberg New Energy Finance as a lead North American data researcher. Jason’s first job in the industry was installing solar arrays on rooftops in New Jersey. Jason is a FAA Part 107, CFA Charterholder and a NABCEP PV Associate.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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