Limited battery life, brittle materials (prop plastic, arms), difficulty to “keep the controls smooth” with fingers frozen to the bone, and setting correct camera exposure and white balance – all these challenges make flying drones in cold winter temperatures an entirely different sport. Follow these five easy tips and you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous snowy landscape shots or a cool winter sport videos that your friends will love and your drone colleagues from warm climates quietly envy:
Tip 1: Winter-proof the pilot
Put on some layers and good boots when planning to stay outdoors and fly for prolonged periods of time-it is really difficult to keep your creative spirit going if you’re freezing. To keep your hands warm, consider investing in a transmitter mitt to put over the transmitter. Choose one that fits your transmitter, you may need to slightly modify it if you use a transmitter mounted monitor bracket. To keep your hands warm outside of the mitt, I recommend using thin, touch-screen friendly gloves (e-tip). Their ability to work on touch screens comes really handy if you’re using your smartphone or tablet as a part of your setup, and you can do almost all other flying-related tasks (changing batteries, small repairs, even flying) without ever having to take them off.
Tip 2: Prepare your drone for cold temperatures and check it often for cracks and loose fasteners
Some flight controllers will simply refuse to take off when the ambient temperature is below their operating range. The key is keeping the machine warm (inside of a car) till it’s time to fly. If keeping it in your car or indoors is not an option, locate the sensors/components affected by low temperatures, and keep them warm by placing a hand warmer pad over them (loosely, be careful not to obstruct any sensor openings). Plastic parts become very brittle in freezing temperatures – plastic props are more prone to snapping during “spirited flights” in cold weather. Check the screws on your drone often, they are more likely to loosen in cold temperatures. Pick a good landing spot so your camera and gimbal don’t sink into the snow when landing.
Tip 3: Don’t freeze your batteries
The performance of LiPo batteries diminishes in lower temperatures. To help mitigate this, keep your batteries warm until you need them by keeping them indoors, in your car, or placing them in the inner pockets of your jacket. Hand warmer pads can also help here – you can simply stick them onto the battery. Hovering the copter in the air for a minute after you take off also helps warm things up. Do not use batteries to their full capacity, land at 20-30% to prevent sudden drops in voltage. If you’re using a stick battery that does not get inserted into the drone, you can wrap the battery in a bottle koozie to keep it insulated while on the copter. DJI Inspire pilots can take advantage of the original Inspire battery insulation stickers and battery warmers.
Tip 4: Set correct exposure and white balance for your snow landscape shots
While the exposure meter on your camera may work well in most conditions, bright snowy landscape shots may trick the camera into thinking that the scene is over-exposed and setting the exposure too low. This usually results in under-exposed pictures, with snow looking grey, and even missing detail in shadows. Set your exposure manually, over-expose the image by 0.3-0.7 stop, and check your photos after you take them. If your drone camera has exposure compensation feature, manually compensate the exposure at 0.3-0.7 stop over the metered value (so that the exposure value shows that the image is over-exposed by +0.3 to +0.7). White balance setting helps the camera interpret the snowy scenes to look white. Leaving it in auto may cause the snow to come out too amber or blue in your pictures. If your drone camera allows for manual setting of white balance, set it to 6500K for an average snowy landscape on a sunny day. Turn it up if the snow appears too blue, or down if it appears too amber.
Tip 5: Use Neutral Density (ND) filters for video
Bright winter environment forces the fixed aperture cameras (typical on most consumer drones) to set the shutter speed too fast and turn your video into a jittery mess. For a good, natural motion-blurred look, the shutter speed should be roughly double your video frame rate. For example, at 30 frames per second you want your shutter speed to be as close to 1/60 as possible. This concept is called 180 degree shutter. Adding a Neutral Density filter helps limit the amount of light entering the camera, lets you choose slower shutter speeds, and help you create smooth looking videos.
My coldest flying experience was during filming of a Frozen Harbor in Massachusetts during the “Polar Vortex of 2014”. This cool video was my reward for enduring temperatures cold enough to freeze the Ocean.
[vimeo 88424525 w=500 h=281]