The consumer drone industry has really taken off over the last few years. I know, I know, it's a bad pun. Drone technology has advanced at an amazing pace. This is especially good for photographers who want to put a different spin (ahh, make it stop!) on their still as well as video shots. As more and more people get into drones, there are increasing concerns about how to travel with them and the batteries that provide their power. This is particularly true if your desired mode of transportation is by plane. The heightened security and increasingly stringent rules imposed for those who fly make it tricky business to know what can and cannot be taken on a plane.
Generally speaking, rechargeable lithium ion batteries used in most drones (less than 100 watt-hours) can be carried on a plane with you. Drone batteries that are larger than 100 watt-hours may still be acceptable, but there are some limitations. It's important to know what batteries you have and how the rules apply to you.
There is plenty of information on-line about the rules and regulations regarding airline travel with drone batteries. Check out the Youtube video that Jim Harmer did on this topic below. If there is any question about what is and isn't allowed, you can always double-check the official rules and regulations on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) website. Another good resource about battery rules is this FAA quick reference guide.
Let's Talk Drone Batteries
There are many different types of Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. These batteries are the most common energy source for powering the electric motors in drones. Their configuration of cells, management and protection circuitry, and a durable enclosure are carefully engineered to pack a lot of potential energy into a relatively small and light package. Since Lithium-Polymer (LiPo) cells are able to utilize lighter packaging, have a high discharge rate, and offer greater flexibility in their configuration, they are the cell of choice for most drone manufacturers today. Increasing the energy/weight ratio allows for longer flight times, which is the name of the game.
One of the main drawbacks to LiPo batteries is the inherent potential danger that is present. Although safety mechanisms are built in, catastrophic failure could occur due to short circuiting or physical damage. It is understandable why there are concerns with carrying these batteries on a flight. However, careful handling can alleviate these concerns.
What are the Rules?
Reading through and trying to interpret federal regulations isn't much fun. After reading through the guidelines published by the FAA and Transportation Security Administration (TSA), I believe that I have a handle on where things stand with this. Keep in mind that the publish date for this article is August 2017, and is based on current laws. Be aware that things could change with regards to battery allowances if you are reading this several months beyond that date. Here is how the restrictions break down, based on the capacity of the batteries.
Batteries rated for less than 100 watt hours
The cutoff point where things become more stringent for battery transport is 100 watt hours. Consumer-sized Li-ion batteries, rated at up to 100 watt hours, can be carried on the plane. This includes batteries that are installed in a drone as well as spare batteries. Batteries rated up to 100 watt hours can also be in checked bags, as long as they are installed in the drone. Loose (spare) batteries are not allowed in checked bags.
Batteries rated for 101 to 160 watt hours
Larger and higher capacity drone batteries have a few more restrictions, but they can still be carried on a plane with airline approval. Batteries installed in a drone are acceptable as well as up to two spare batteries in your carry-on. These batteries installed in a drone are also able to be checked, again with airline approval. However, spare batteries of this size cannot be packed in checked baggage.
According to the handy FAA quick reference guide, there are no limits to the number of batteries under 100 watt hours that can be carried on the plane. That is provided that the batteries and drones are for personal (including professional) use. Batteries carried for resale or redistribution do not qualify under these limitations. Drone batteries over the 100 watt hour threshold are limited to a total of three carried on the plane: one in the drone and two spares.
Regardless of size, all spare batteries in carry-on luggage must be protected against short-circuiting and physical damage. This means that batteries should be stored in their original packaging or placed in a protective sleeve or case. Batteries that are placed in separate dividers in a camera or drone bag should be fine. Just to be extra safe, you may also place a piece of gaffer's tape over the terminals of spare batteries to prevent them from contacting other objects in your bag.
Popular Drone Battery Sizes
As you can see from the table below, most of the drones commonly used by photographers today use batteries that are under the 100 watt hour limit. The one exception here is the DJI Inspire 1, with a battery rated at 129.96 watt hours. Special approval would be required from the airline prior to carrying the Inspire 1 batteries on a plane.
|Drone Model||Battery Size (in Wh)|
|DJI Mavic Pro||43.6|
|DJI Phantom 3||68|
|DJI Phantom 4||89.2|
|DJI Inspire 1||129.96|
|DJI Inspire 2||97.58|
|Yuneec Typhoon 4K||59.94|
|Yuneec Typhoon H||79.92|
How to determine watt hours (if it is not labeled on the battery)
Most batteries will be labeled with their capacity. However, if yours is not, there is a simple way to determine this using a little math. The watt hours of a battery is the volts (V) multiplied by ampere hours (Ah). For instance, a 12-volt battery rated at 8 ampere hours, is rated at 96 watt hours.
Since drone batteries are most likely going to be labeled with their milliamp hours (mAh), that number would first need to be divided by 1,000 to get the Ah. For example, the DJI Inspire 1 battery is a 5700 mAh, 22.8 V battery. The watt hours is calculated as follows:
5700/1000 = 5.7 Ah
5.7 Ah x 22.8 V = 129.96 Wh
Drones are a lot of fun to fly and use as a photographic tool. As photographers, we naturally want to take these tools with us when we travel. Flying with a drone doesn't have to be complicated and shouldn't prevent you from taking your drone. There are just a few rules to be followed and you shouldn't have any problems. Those rules are put into place to keep all airline passengers safe.