Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about taking your drone through TSA in your checked baggage. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.
I’m going to Maui in three weeks, and I would love to bring my GoPro Drone. I was wondering if you know the regulation at SFO regards to having drone in my carry-on. Any tips in Maui? What spots are good to fly drones at?
I’m jealous you’re heading to Maui! And yes, whether you are flying through SFO or any other airport, it is okay to take a drone through a U.S. airport. Drones are allowed through the TSA checkpoints, according to the TSA.
That said, just because you can get your drone through the airport doesn’t always mean you can bring your drone on the plane. Always check with your specific airline prior to traveling for their policy.
However, while it’s uncommon to find drones on the prohibited packing items list on U.S. airlines, you may find drone bans on some international airlines.
To pack your drone in checked baggage or carry-on?
Some airlines that allow drones do have specific rules around where the drone has to be packed: checked baggage vs. carry-on.
It’s not uncommon to find that drones are allowed in one particular type of baggage, but the battery is not. Many airlines ban lithium or lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold, so even if you want to check your drone you might find that you have to keep the battery on you at all times.
For example, Delta Air Lines requires that, if you intend to surrender your drone at the boarding gate or at check-in to be loaded in the cargo compartment, you must remove lithium-ion batteries from the bag before it can be loaded into the cargo compartment, and you must carry the batteries with you in the cabin.
Southwest, which is a big provider of flights to Hawaii, also requires that spare batteries must be packed in your carry-on bag or be with you onboard.
Most airlines publish a prohibited items list that can clarify what the rules are. It doesn’t hurt to contact customer service to confirm.
Always pack Lipo batteries in fire safe bags when flying
While not a requirement, this is just good practice, considering Lipo batteries have been known to cause fires. Fireproof Lipo bags can easily cost less than $20, so it’s a minor cost for a huge amount of risk mitigation.
While packing your drone battery in a separate, fireproof bag will take up some precious carry-on space, it’s worth it. Luckily, fireproof battery pouches for individual batteries aren’t too large and can easily tuck in an existing carry-on bag. Though, for multiple batteries, fireproof Lipo battery storage bags may count as your carry-on bag, so plan accordingly.
Tips for taking your drones through TSA
While the TSA clearly says drones are allowed, make things simple on both you and the TSA agent.
Here’s my pro-tip: While you don’t necessarily need to remove your drone from its bag at the TSA, I always at least just give the TSA agent a head’s up that there’s a drone inside the bag before I send it through the scanner.
Every time I don’t, they also see its weird shape and feel the need to inspect it! This always ends up just saving everyone time. And of course, every TSA agent is different and you may find that they ask you to remove the drone from the bag anyway.
And sometimes, even TSA agents don’t know the rules. Jonathan Atkin, who is the creator of Aerial Maritime Photography Shipshooter Productions, suggests always leaving a laminated sheet spelling out the TSA requirements about LiPo batteries inside your drone case. Then, you can show it to the agent if they try to stop you from bringing your batteries through the airport.
TSA limits on flying with drone batteries
One important thing to note, there ARE restrictions on flying with batteries. According to the FAA, all spare (uninstalled) lithium ion and lithium metal batteries — including power banks and cell phone battery charging cases — are only allowed in carry-on baggage (not okay in checked baggage).
That includes power banks, cell phone battery charging cases, rechargeable and non-rechargeable lithium batteries, cell phone batteries, laptop batteries, power banks, external batteries, portable rechargers and yes, drone batteries.
There are also some size limits on your drones. Lithium ion, rechargeable batteries (most common for drones) are limited to a rating of 100 watt hours (Wh) per battery. If they exceed that, you must receive specific airline approval. You can check your drone’s user manual to check your battery’s watt hours.
If your drone battery is larger than that (101–160 Wh), you are capped at bringing no more than two, according to FAA rules. But even some airlines place their own caps on batteries with less wattage than that. For example, Southwest only lets you travel with up to 20 spare batteries at a time.
Pro-tip: If you need to travel with more batteries, give the spare ones to your travel companion to hold onto.
How many Wh is your drone’s battery? Typically, you can find this information in your drone’s user manual. But while most consumer drones will come under the air travel limit, it’s not uncommon for industrial-grade drones to exceed that limit. For example, DJI’s TB65 Intelligent Flight Battery (found in drones including the DJI Matrice 350 RTK) is 263 Wh, so it cannot be carried onto an airplane according to airline regulations.
Flying with drones internationally
Remember that all of this applies to domestic flying in the U.S. If you were flying internationally, that would be a different story. I’ve heard everything from drones being confiscated, to travelers being asked to leave their drone at customs and being told they could pick it up at the end of their trip. Just ask filmmaker Chafic Saad, who arrived at the customs department in Bali, which would not let them bring a drone through despite what they though was the proper paperwork.
“They thought I was going to sell it,” he said. “I had to put down a deposit of $2,000 US dollars and it would not have been returned if I didn’t bring the money back. That was scary.”
If you ever DO take your drone internationally, UAV Coach has a really excellent master list of drone laws by country. There you can find out if you need to register, if you need a license, and if you can even bring that drone into the country. Though, sometimes it seems laws change on an almost-daily basis, so I would also check with each country’s aviation regulatory agency’s website as well.
As far as flying specifically in Maui, amazing spots include the drive to Hana, where you can photograph the rugged cliffs and waterfalls. Check the FAA’s B4UFly app to ensure you can legally fly at your Hawaiian spot of choice. Haleakala National Park is a restricted area (as are all U.S. National Parks) as is the airspace around Kahului Airport.
If you have personal experience flying with a drone in Hawaii, or have broader drone travel tips, please leave a comment below!
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