This is Part 2 of a 3-Part Series about my summer flying drones in the Arctic Circle. Check back later this week for Part 3! For Part 1, the Arctic Circle drone packing list, visit this link.
I just spent an incredible summer in the Arctic Circle — Somerset Island in Canada, to be exact –flying drones!
I had a life-changing trip camping at the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge through a trip with Quark Expeditions — not just flying drones, but exploring all the wonders the Arctic has to offer — spotting polar bears, biking on the sea ice, and enjoying 24/7 sunlight.
I also learned a lot about flying drones — because flying your drone in the Arctic comes with its own set of obstacles that are typically never an issue flying back at home. Here are the 10 top things I learned about flying your drones in the Arctic:
1. Be aware of magnetic interference from the poles:
Flying so far north (or south, if you’re in Antarctica!) will cause compass and GPS errors. Before flying in the Arctic, you should have plenty of practice flying in ATTI mode. Flying drones in the Arctic is also a good excuse for you to upgrade your old DJI Phantom 2 to DJ’s newer models. Older drones were more prone to flyaways near the poles because they relied on the compass for flight control (it was not uncommon a few years back to here stories of frequent flyaways).
New drones, like the DJI Mavic Air use a combination of visual inertial odometry and a new positioning algorithm to fly more precisely in complex environments. The Mavic also has redundancies like a “Vision Compass” to assist the navigation system to estimate flight direction when the compass experiences interference. If you’re on the fence about upgrading your drone, consider purchasing a newer model drone before your trip to the Arctic.
2. Be aware of wind conditions:
The Arctic is barren. There are no buildings and no trees, which means that when the wind starts blowing, there is no shelter. Not even DJI drones are immune from being swept away by wind gusts after flying too high and losing connection with the controller. And in high-winds, not even the “fail-safe” GPS-enabled Return To Home feature will be enough.
DJI’s newer products are actually able to detect wind conditions. The DJI Spark will send out an alert to your app when the current wind speed is higher than 13 m/s. And note that the wind speed in the air could be greater than the wind speed on the ground.
The Max Wind Speed Resistance of the DJI Mavic Air is just 18 miles per hour, while the Max Wind Speed Resistance of the Inspire 2 is 22 miles per hour. Be aware of what your drone’s wind speed limits are, and pack accordingly.
You can actually test the wind speed before you put your drone in the air by using an anemometer. While you’ll be testing the wind speed from the ground with this device, it can at least give a somewhat good gauge of the wind speed up above you.
3. Consider bringing a portable, external drive with you:
Flying in the Arctic is tough, and the odds of a flyaway are inherently higher. While you may have multiple batteries as you head out on your treks, you likely will have only one drone. And if that drone does flyaway, you don’t want to lose your precious footage too.
I recommend bringing a storage device to back up your footage immediately. I personally have and love the My Passport Wireless SSD. Why? You don’t need a computer to upload footage. It has a built-in SD card reader, so you can simply pop your memory card into the portable drive, upload your footage in a matter of seconds, and pop it back into your drone to resume flying. There’s huge peace of mind in knowing your footage is backed up, all without even needing a laptop.
4. Pack correctly:
It’s not just packing your drone and all the accessories that go with it, but packing for the Arctic also means you want to be armed with Arctic-specific accessories such as gloves that still allow you to tap your phone or tablet screens and proper footwear (I love Muck Boots!!) See my complete Arctic Drone packing list at this post here.
5. Update your app software and your drone’s firmware BEFORE getting there:
When I was in the Arctic, I camped at the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, which provided incredible accommodations. And while they did have WiFi, it’s satellite WiFi, and not exactly the fast (you’re in the Arctic — what did you expect?). Before you leave for the Arctic, make sure your drone’s software and firmware is up to date so you aren’t left spending hours trying to download an update via a bad WiFi signal.
6. Know how cold affects battery life and sensors:
Colder temperatures shorten the flight time of your drone by slowing the chemical reaction with the LiPo batteries and lowering the battery capacity. A fully charged drone that typically will last between 20 to 25 minutes in flight, could fly for just 10-15 minutes in colder weather. Extreme cold weather can cause an unexpected power drop, and while it’s rare, there have been cases where batteries fail completely.
Cold weather dulls the drone’s sensors which can cause the drone to drift or have less response from the control input. In addition, cold fingers or gloves make controlling the input more difficult.
7. Consider using a battery heater:
In extremely cold weather, you should preheat your drone’s battery before actually taking flight. Some manufacturers make battery heaters to augment their batteries. For example, the Phantom 3 Intelligent Battery Heater is used to preheat the aircraft battery in air temperatures between -4℉ and 41℉. Note that around 3% to 7% of battery power will be used for heating.
8. Watch out for precipitation:
Most drones cannot withstand precipitation, and the moisture can damage or short out the motor, gimbal, or camera. If rain or snow occurs while your drone is in flight, land as quickly as possible, then dry the propellers and the body. While I typically think drone landing pads are a waste of money, taking off in snow is one instance where you want one.
9. Consider your camera settings:
Not only is flying the drone in the Arctic a bigger ordeal from a flying perspective, there are additional factors to consider when it comes to your camera settings. The Arctic will likely be bright and snowy. Shooting in auto mode will likely result in underexposed images because the camera’s automatic settings are tricked by the brightness of the snow. Before takeoff, manually set your camera’s exposure and white balance.
10. Travel with experts! Traveling in the Arctic is rough. There aren’t paved trails, and there’s no tourist info center waiting for you. Make sure you travel with an experienced guide. I had a blast traveling with the Weber family, who owns and operates the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. Not only are they highly experienced explorers (Richard Weber is the only person in the world to have completed six full North Pole expeditions, which means he has trekked to the North Pole more than anyone in history), but they are experienced with drones too! They own a drone themselves and have worked on drone projects with media organizations like National Geographic and Netflix, so they make excellent drone guides too.