Air Travel with a Carry-on Drone: Packing tips and TSA battery regulations

In Gear by Jim Harmer4 Comments



I have taken a number of commercial airline flights with my drone.  At first it was really complicated to try and figure out the rules for batteries, if it was possible to carry on or if I'd have to check the drone, etc.  However, the laws are really not too difficult to navigate and I think you can easily carry on your drone with just a few tips.

Laws for Carrying Drone Batteries on a Flight

  • If a lithium ion drone battery does not exceed 100Wh, it may be carried on the airplane or checked in a bag.
  • If the lithium ion drone battery does exceed 100Wh but does not exceed 160 Wh, it must be carried on, AND airline approval is required, AND you can only bring two and not three batteries.  (Source)
  • If the battery exceeds 160 Wh, it may not be carried on or checked.
  • SPARE lithium ion batteries (including lithium polymer are PROHIBITED in checked baggage.  However, a drone battery is allowed in checked baggage if installed in the drone.
  • A maximum of one installed drone battery and two spare drone batteries are prohibited in carry-on luggage.
  • All drone batteries in checked or carry-on luggage must be protected against puncture and short circuit.

Sources: TSA.gov and the TSA app

For your reference, here are the Watt hour ratings for a few common drone batteries.

  • DJI Mavic Pro battery – 43.6 Watt hours
  • DJI Phantom 3 battery – 68 Watt hours
  • Yuneec Typhoon H battery – 79.9 Watt hours
  • DJI Phantom 4 battery – 81.3 Watt hours
  • DJI Inspire 2 battery – 97.58 Watt hours
  • DJI Inspire 1 battery – 129.96 Watt hours (Over the limit for carrying on without additional permission from the airline!)

What does all this mean?  Give it to me in English!

  • You can bring a maximum of three drone batteries in your carry-on luggage: one in the drone, and two spares.
  • You can only put a drone battery in checked baggage, and only if it's installed in the drone.
  • All common drone batteries should be fine except for the DJI Inspire 1 batteries (Inspire 2 is okay) which you have to get special permission for.
  • The battery in your remote should be fine since it's permanently installed and under 100Wh.
  • It's okay to bring on additional CAMERA batteries and AA batteries for GoPros, a DSLR, etc, without limit as long as they are not the larger drone-type batteries.
  • You have to have protection for the batteries.  Bring them in separate lipo-safe bags (link to buy on Amazon), or in a DJI camera backpack with separate compartments for the batteries, etc.  They can't be left banging around loose in your bag.

How to Carry Normal Camera Gear AND Drone Gear on the Flight

The biggest problem that I have is that the drone is not my only piece of electronics when I travel for photography.  I also have an assortment of other cameras, lenses, a laptop, etc.  I don't want to check my DSLR gear OR my drone for fear that they will get ruined by the baggage handlers, so I want to carry them on.

I found a little tip that totally solves this problem.

The packaging that your DJI Phantom comes in is the exact perfect size for a personal item!  It's just BARELY taller than it should be, but not as long as it could be, so the total size is smaller.  So just bring your normal camera backpack (mine happens to be the Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 Horizon) loaded with your camera gear and laptop and anything else you would normally bring.  Then, separately bring the boxed packaging for the DJI Phantom and you're good to go!

How to Avoid Getting Your Drone Gate Checked

The real problem with the whole setup I've outlined above is the possibility of the dreaded “green tag.”  When flying on a larger international flight, usually all the luggage fits on the plane; however, if your home airport is a smaller airport (like mine in Boise, Idaho) and you often have to fly on a regional jet, they usually walk around and green tag many of the bags.

If the flight attendant comes to your bag and asks you to green tag it, you need to tell them that the bag cannot be gate checked because it has lithium ion (or lithium polymer) batteries in it.  This would normally give you a free pass to keep your stuff from being checked, right?  Not so fast.  As the man behind PhotoshopCafe found out, telling the flight attendant you have a bunch of lithium ion batteries in your bag will set off red flags.  In his case, the flight attendant asked the pilot and the pilot removed him from the airplane.  It took him hours of arguing with the airline before they would rebook him.

At the same time, you can't let them check the bag–it's dangerous and also your gear could get ruined.  What I'd recommend is:

  • Do everything humanly possible to get on the plane as fast as possible so your gear will fit
  • Sit at a neighboring gate while waiting for boarding to start.  Do NOT sit at your gate.  They often walk around and start green tagging when they have extra time before boarding begins.
  • When you walk up to the boarding pass check (right before boarding), set down your personal item right up close to the podium and move it along with your feet so they don't see it.  If they see you with two items, they may ask you to check one.
  • If you get asked to green tag one of your bags, calmly tell them that you have extremely delicate compasses in your bag which can't be checked, and also that you have a couple small lithium ion camera batteries.  Reinforce that your bag WILL fit under the seat and that you don't mind putting it there.

Traveling With Larger Drones (DJI Inspire and larger)

Traveling with the DJI Inspire and other larger drones presents some unique issues: (1) The Inspire 1 batteries do not fit under the 100Wh safe haven, so you have to go on the good graces of TSA and the airline–hoping they'll give you permission.  (2) Since they are larger, they will not fit in a personal item, which means it'll be next to impossible to bring both still camera equipment and a drone.

You can fit a DJI Inspire in a carry-on, but it will likely take up the whole bag.  You could carry a small amount of camera equipment in a messenger bag, but you will likely be limited.  Flying with an Inspire is tough, and you just may end up needing to check something.  More on that later.

How to Check a Drone (And NOT get it destroyed)

When I made a recent trip to Ireland, I did the unthinkable and checked my drone.  I was very nervous about it, but I found a way to pack it that I was comfortable with.  I still wouldn't recommend checking any camera or drone equipment, but in this case I had to make an exception.  If you're ever in a similar situation, I hope this tip helps.

What I did is packed my drone in my normal DJI hardshell backpack and removed all of the batteries.  Then, I put that backpack in a normal consumer suitcase, and packed clothes all around the backpack to further cushion it.

It's never ideal to check a drone, but if you are forced to, I feel like having it in a padded backpack, with soft clothes around the backpack, and then in a larger suitcase is a pretty safe way to go.  I feel more confident with that solution than just putting it in a pelican case.  The drone made it to Ireland and back unscathed.

 


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..

Comments

  1. Jim– I think you meant well but perhaps you misstated your 5th bullet point: A maximum of one installed drone battery and two spare drone batteries are prohibited in carry-on luggage.

    From what I have read, these batteries are ALLOWED in carry on baggage. Not a minor point for anyone looking to carry on batteries that are less than 100 Wh.

    If I’m correct, you might want to change what is probably a typo. Let me know if I’m incorrect as I plan to travel soon.

    Thanks for your post that is otherwise helpful,

  2. Good advice….One point of contention, however. You can carry as many batteries as you like as long as they are for personal use and not for sale, AND if they fall under the 100wh rule. You are not limited to 3 batteries unless they are the larger 101-160wh batteries. I have four so I went in to research this.

    Straight from the TSA website: “Quantity limits: None for most batteries – but batteries must be for use by the passenger. Batteries carried for further sale or distribution (vendor samples, etc.) are prohibited. There is a limit of two spare batteries per person for the larger lithium ion batteries described above (101-160 watt hours per battery).”

  3. Great article. I travel all around the world with my drone. I generally take it out when I get to TSA and mention to them with a joke at the beginning. They like it that way. TSA in Bahamas forced me to check mine in and put the entire plane in jeopardy. They didn’t even understand what lithium ion batteries were or the risks. Luckily I had extra bubble wrap and it wasn’t damaged, so I’d suggest to always carry extra bubble wrap when traveling with a drone just in case.

  4. Awesome tips…headed to Boston with my drone, first time packing it for Carry-on.

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