Let us duck. Let us cover. Let Us Drone.
My mother and father in-law’s house sits nicely on a hill that overlooks beautiful grasslands. A great place to fly, but susceptible to many mornings of low-hanging fog due to its elevated location. On one of those mornings, I had the urge to get a little flight time in, knowing full well that any pictures captured would be the antithesis of cinematic. After flying no more than 50 feet up, the frightening thought of a moisture-coated Phantom 4 Advanced resulted in a very, very short flight. Fortunately, my drone was undamaged, but I couldn’t help wondering “what if I flew my drone in the rain?”
DJI’s stance on the matter is not ambiguous in the least, with their manuals stating “Do not use the aircraft in severe weather conditions. These include wind speeds exceeding 10 m/s, snow, rain, and fog.”
What will happen if I fly my drone in the rain, fog or humidity?
Either by sheer curiosity or unfortunate timing, you have found yourself flying in the rain. What’s going to happen? As it was clearly pointed out above, DJI does not condone such practice, but that hasn't stopped thousands of people from being curious as to what happens when you take a drone up in the rain; some have even experimented with their own aircraft. To those brave souls, we thank you, for giving us unofficial, albeit real-world case studies.
What happens to one pilot when he takes his Spark up in the rain should not be an indication of what your results might be if you do the same. The water quantity, wind, and other factors come into play with each scenario. Here’s a video of a YouTuber flying his Spark in some serious rain: https://youtu.be/4khIvLe1ou4. The drone looks to be okay but we don’t know how it fared in the following days/weeks as corrosion may have set it. While conducting my research, I came across a few who said they luckily walked away with a damage-free drone after flying in the rain for one reason or another. This, however, is not the case for everyone.
If you do decide to take the risk of flying your drone in the rain, I hope it's not for the sake of photography. Once your camera lens gets a drop of water on it, that’s pretty much game over for any of your pictures coming out with any clarity. If there’s a chance of rain in the forecast, be smart about it and don’t fly too far from your location. If it starts to rain, try flying home backward, as there’s less of a chance that water will get sucked up through the intake. When you retrieve the drone, immediately shut it off and remove the battery. Depending on how wet the drone gets, determines your best course of action. If it was a light drizzle, leaving the drone in a dry place for a while with the battery removed should be adequate. If the drone got drenched, you may want to toss the battery as it wouldn’t be worth it to trust a water-damaged LiPo battery. Let the drone sit for a few days before powering it back on. Keep in mind that opening your drone up in an attempt to dry any saturated innards will void the warranty.
When it comes to humidity, my initial thought was that the prolonged exposure to the moisture would be the only issue. When conducting research, I found that humidity can also interfere with the radio signal as atmospheric humidity affects the permeability of the atmosphere. With that being said, I haven’t heard of anyone that can say with complete certainty that their weak signal was directly related to the humidity. It’s speculated that the humidity would become more of a factor at long ranges.
When I flew my Phantom 4 Advanced in the fog for those few short minutes, I was fortunate that my drone did not sustain any damage despite coming back with a very palpable coat of water on it. Fog may not present the immediate threat that rain does, but it should be taken seriously and it would be smart to check the forecast before setting out to fly. Additionally, visibility is terrible around fog, and we know that flying beyond visual line of sight (VLOS) is a no-no with the FAA.
Lightning! Although extremely unlikely, there’s a chance your drone could be struck if you were to be flying around lightning as it carries a high magnetic field. Check out this very entertaining video of what exactly happens to a drone when it is struck by lightning: https://youtu.be/L3iJjrQmEho. It also states in the after-sales service policies that drones struck by lightning are not covered under the limited warranty.
What kind of damage can flying in the rain cause?
The number of components that can be damaged by water are numerous. Precipitation can easily penetrate the area around the gimbal, and although motors are somewhat shielded by the spinning props, they are still exposed; and expect your drone to fall from the sky instantly if an electronic speed controller (ESC) gets short-circuited.
If you decide to fly in the rain and also happen to live in an area that is very cold, you run the risk of water freezing on the props. So on top of all of the other potential poor outcomes, you get to add icicle-props. I may be wrong, but I doubt DJI made an effort to design their drones with such handling capabilities.
Even if your drone returns safely without any apparent water damage, that doesn't mean you are out of the “storm”. Electronics that sit with water on them for an extended period of time, don't usually walk (or fly) away symptom-free. I read about a pilot who flew his Phantom in the fog and a few days later, found out that three of the motors had seized up.
Maybe it’s been raining for days and the moment has finally arrived; the sun is out and you take that Phantom out for a much-needed flight. You launch where there is a small puddle but don’t think it’s a big deal; I mean, after all, it’s a tiny puddle. Congratulations, you just sucked up water (likely dirty) into the intake and you may as well have just flown yesterday in the middle of the storm. Consider using a launchpad when taking off anywhere near water, dirt, sand, or anything else not conducive to a healthy Phantom.
Options for those who live in a super-saturated environment
So what if you live in a place that seems to never be dry? Just miss out on the joy of flying these amazing machines? Nah, don’t do that. You have a couple of options thanks to the ingenuity of some motivated people.
If you have the dough, DJI has made the perfect drone for you. Enter Matrice 200 series, a water-resistant drone with an ingress protection level of IP43. Click here to find out more about IP levels and just how water-resistant the Matrice 200 series is. It is important to note that although the drone is water-resistant, DJI does not make a camera that is. Since the camera is underneath the drone, it’s liable to be okay as long as your angles and speed aren’t too drastic. In fact, I read about a pilot who had flown a few times in the rain with his Matrice 210 with no adverse effects to the camera.
The Matrice 200 is really aimed at someone in need of a drone with industrial capabilities, but what about the hobbyist or smaller company without the deep pockets? Phantom Rain is a company that makes wetsuits for the Phantom 4 drones. With seals around the gimbal, props, battery, SD card and more, the wetsuit is certainly an option. Sure, as soon as the lens gets wet you won’t be able to count on any type of clear pictures, but maybe this is an option for agencies looking for a search and rescue drone. While in the U.S. Coast Guard this would have come in handy on many of our SAR missions.
Does DJI’s warranty cover water damage?
When referring to what is not covered by their limited warranty, DJI states “Damage caused by operation in bad weather (i.e. strong winds, rain, sand/dust storms, etc.)”. This information can be found here.
But if you choose to purchase Care Refresh for your drone, here’s what DJI has to say: “Damage occurring after the product has come into contact with water is covered by the DJI Care Refresh. Product that suffers water damage can be replaced under DJI Care Refresh.”
Personally, I have not used the Phantom Rain wetsuits and I can’t justify buying a Matrice 200 at this time, so I plan to be watching movies, with my dry drones in their cases the next time San Diego gets a bath. Besides, with average annual precipitation of less than 12”, I have no business flying a drone on one of our few and far between rainy days. Maybe consider moving to San Diego if you just want to avoid the rain altogether. What about you? Have you flown in the rain? If so, comment below what your experience was like!