This article was originally published in Drones Magazine February/March 2016 issue.
by Petr Hejl
Aftermath of a LiPo fire in a cargo hold of FIJI Airways airliner. The owner has packed 27 batteries in a checked-in case.
Visiting different places and destinations beyond the places you usually fly is a great and exciting part of owning a multi rotor. Being able to share your travel adventures (and you’re piloting skills) with your friends from an unusual point of view should be enough of a motivation to overcome a few hassles associated with bringing your drone along. For many enthusiasts and professionals alike, long distance travel with drones poses a few important questions, from how to pack our beloved “toys” to keep them out of harm’s way, through handling lithium polymer batteries, to researching the rules governing RC aircraft at your destination. Being a commercial drone operator means that we often have to deal with bringing our equipment along for jobs, which involves hauling multiple machines, plenty of batteries and other support equipment (we do not travel light).
Let’s have a look at a few useful tips and general rules to help you make sure that you can enjoy flying far away from home, and one airline secret that can help you save a lot of money on excessive baggage fees.
LiPo battery safety pouch can keep your batteries safe when traveling or during storage.
Batteries containing lithium deserve extra care and consideration. While they are usually very safe, they can become volatile
and cause a violent fire if mishandled. If you have not seen a LiPo fire yet, there are plenty of videos on YouTube you can use to educate yourself on this subject.
A small disclaimer before we move on: the rules described below are a subject to change and I encourage the reader to research the most up-to-date rules regarding lithium based batteries on FAA’s website (simple google search will help here). Outside of the U.S., you can refer to the website of an aviation authority responsible for your area of travel. These are the only websites guaranteed to have the latest information on this subject.
CHECK-IN OR CARRY-ON?
Batteries: Spare lithium based batteries CANNOT be checked in and must be packed in your carry-on luggage. Sudden temperature and pressure changes, along with the risk of being mishandled by the baggage handlers increase the risk of the batteries catching fire. Not too long ago, a Fiji Airways flight was minutes away from take-off in Melbourne, Australia, when the crew noticed billowing white smoke coming out of the cargo hold. It was determined that a drone owner, despite the rules, had checked-in a substantial number of undeclared LiPo batteries, which unfortunately caught fire. One can only imagine the consequences of this happening mid-air. Be sure not to forget a battery in your drone, it may accidentally discharge and become volatile. The batteries in your remote controller(s) are allowed to be checked in, as they are installed and not considered spare batteries. Do not transport any damaged or swollen battery packs.
Always check the permissible carry-on size on your airline’s website before packing. Carry-on sizes vary by airline and you want to avoid any surprises. Pack your batteries, preferably, in a hard case (Pelican or similar) and away from each other. Use of LiPo safety bags is advisable if there are no other means of keeping the batteries separated from each other. Do not pack your batteries together with any objects that may puncture or deform them and make sure that the battery terminals are covered so there is no risk of short-circuit.
It is a good idea to attach a lithium battery warning sticker to your case. You can either make your own, or buy a few on Amazon for that professional look. It o en happens that the overhead bin space runs out and people are asked to check-in their carry-on luggage at the gate or plane-side. If this happens to you, politely inform the attendant about the content of your carry-on (it is still your responsibility not to check-in lithium based batteries) and ask them if room can be made in attendant’s closet. If that is not an option, carefully re-pack the batteries into a smaller bag (I always carry my backpack with my computer as a “personal item”). When repacking, be sure to keep the batteries from anything that can puncture them and protect the battery terminals from coming in contact with each other or any metal.
GoProfessional case for DJI Phantom will pass as a carry-on with some airlines. Always check the carry-on size limits on your airline’s website before traveling.
Drone: Some cases or backpacks available for smaller drones (DJI Phantom, etc.) can be transported as a carry-on. Larger frames should be packed in a hard case (Pelican, GoProfessional) with plenty of foam surrounding the drone and accessories to protect it while under care of baggage handlers. I would not recommend checking-in an original DJI Inspire transport case as the content may not withstand the harsh impacts or being stacked under other luggage. Cases under 50 pounds can usually be checked in as regular luggage, most airlines are even willing to overlook if one of the case dimensions exceeds their limits (as long as the weight is within their limit). You can check your airline’s website for allowable luggage dimensions. The largest case we were able to check-in without additional fees was the GoProfessional case for DJI Inspire in landing mode, which is pre y sizable, and without batteries weights just a bit under 50 pounds. Be prepared to pay extra for overweight cases. Ask the check-in counter attendant for “Fragile” stickers and place one on every side of your case. I do not recommend checking-in your camera or lens, so find room in your carry-on if you can. If you are transporting your drones for business, you can save yourself a substantial amount of money on oversize/overweight cases by asking for the media rate.
Media Rate, aka … airline’s best kept secret: Most airlines offer so-called Media rates to media clients traveling with their equipment (cameras, lights, audio equipment, even make-up kits). The size and count limitations slightly vary by the airline and destination (domestic or international), but in general it is possible to get a case up to 100 pounds and 115 inches (when all three dimensions of the case are added up) checked-in for $50, which is an incredible deal.
You can check the media rates on your airline’s website, however, they are usually really difficult to find, thus the best kept secret. I’ve had be er luck simply asking my friend Google. Once you find the website, I strongly suggest printing it or at least bookmarking it on your phone – it may come handy when negotiating the media rate at the counter. It also is a good idea to call the airline prior to your flight and ask if your particular flight can accommodate the size of this case. If you or your clients are using a travel agent, ask them to add the media cases to your traveler profile as sometimes it helps to speed things up at the counter. Most airlines will ask you for media ID, but I have always used my business card with no problems. The counter employees rarely know about this rate or how to add it in their system, so be prepared for some negotiating. Sometimes it seems like they are trained “not to know”, but in the end we’ve never had a problem getting the media rate. Overweight and oversize cases will usually not fit through the security X-ray, so be ready to have your case searched. Keep that in mind when packing and pack in a way that makes it easy for the TSA agents to re-pack your case after it’s checked. Only use TSA approved locks or be ready to lose them. Also, heavy cases usually require special handling as they cannot travel on usual airport luggage belts. Please, keep all the extra time this takes in mind when planning for your arrival at the airport or you’re risking that your luggage will not make it on the same plane as you. I always add an hour to the usual time and plan to arrive at least three hours prior to the flight and I still happened to arrive at my destination without my equipment, which got there few hours later on another flight. If the schedule is tight or there are no other flights for the day, this could be quite crippling.
HOW MANY BATTERIES CAN I BRING?
The amount of batteries you can carry depends on batteries’ Wa -hours (Wh). While some of the newer batteries state the Wa -hours on the case, you may need to calculate this value for the batteries that do not. You can simply multiply the battery nominal Voltage (V) by Amp-hours (Ah). If the battery states Milliamp-hours (mAh), divide the result by 1,000.
Here is the formula: Wh=V x mAh / 1000. I’ll use the DJI Inspire TB47 Battery as an example: the battery has nominal voltage of 22.2V and capacity of 4500mAh, so the Wh calculation using these values would be: 22.2 x 4500 / 1000 = 99.9Wh.
You are allowed to bring as many spare batteries as you wish, as long as they are under 100Wh, so in the case of Inspire’s TB47 batteries (and most of the other smaller drone batteries) there is no limit. This is perhaps the biggest reason for DJI to offer this battery to begin with. You are also allowed to bring two battery packs over 100Wh, but no more than 160Wh. Batteries over 160Wh (most large drone batteries) may not be transported on an airplane and must be ground-shipped.
When pre-shipping your batteries, they must only be shipped by ground (!), so allow enough time (7-10 days when shipping in the US) for the batteries to get to your destination. You can either ask for the batteries to be held for pick-up, or arrange with your client for a physical address they can be delivered to. When packing your batteries for ground shipping, pack them in a hard case and use foam or other material to protect them from impact because they will get dropped. Don’t forget to research drop-off locations available in your destination, so you can easily ship the batteries back when done.
Traveling with your drone requires a bit of planning ahead and research with your airline, but the reward is being able to fly in places you usually don’t get to as well as getting some cool pictures and videos to share with your friends and colleagues. Pay special attention to the rules governing the transport of lithium based batteries. If aerial photography is your business, don’t forget to take advantage of generous media rates offered by many airlines.
GoProfessional case for DJI Inspire in landing mode is the largest case we we’ve been able to check-in without additional charges. It weighs just under 50 lbs. without the batteries.