Last December, I boarded a flight to Houston for a live music and arts festival. I was elated. Not only was it my first time visiting the largest city in Texas, it was also a good month-and-a-half out from the Super Bowl. Without a 34.5 mile radius no-fly zone surrounding NRG Stadium, this was an ideal time to capture landmarks like Hermann Park. Even the main downtown skyline was a possibility. Unfortunately, those carefully-planned photos and video footage never materialized.
As soon as I found a spot to take off for my first flight, I fired up the DJI Go app and discovered there was no image transmission signal. The gimbal, which connects the camera to the aircraft, had been disconnected. I knew, almost immediately, that because I had to check my bulky drone case at the gate, the rough handling of it, treated as any other piece of luggage, jostled the contents around enough to cause significant damage.
The good news is this type of scenario is completely avoidable. I want you to learn from my mistakes, so here are the dos and don’ts of traveling with a drone.
As much as I wish my situation was an isolated incident, a friend travelling to the Caribbean a few months later also found himself with a disconnected gimbal after he couldn’t bring his case on board. Even though they come equipped with custom foam padding, tailored to fit specific drone models, hard-shell cases are still susceptible to a bit of wiggle room that’s amplified by being tossed around and dropped. Gimbals can be fragile, even when held in place with a clamp.
When relaying these frustrating tales of damaged drones to a friend who doesn’t fly at all, she looked at me and asked the obvious: “why don’t you get a backpack?” Great idea. For some odd reason, I felt like seeking out a bargain ― an unconventional decision since I’ve made it a point to fully invest in the latest gear and avoid generic brands.
I found something affordable on Amazon and after reading through the overwhelmingly positive reviews, I decided the price was right. Well, I was wrong and the product I received looked nothing like what was advertised. Lacking any compartments and straps to secure my gear, I might as well have thrown my drone and its accessories into a gym bag for my upcoming trip. That’s when I finally learned, once and for all, that it only makes sense to go with a trusted brand.
PolarPro is known for manufacturing top-quality ND filters. So, naturally, it’s correct to assume that the same amount of care they put into creating the those filters spills over into their other products. Their DroneTrekker Travel Backpack, whose compartments are easy to customize, fit my Phantom 4 Pro (yes, I’ve upgraded since December), four LiPo batteries, the remote, charger, a few cases of filters, and even my 13-inch Macbook laptop. I carried it comfortably on my back and it was compact enough to fit underneath the seat in front of me. I still put it in the overhead compartment but it’s nice to know that if I don’t check-in early enough for my flight, and those bins happen to be at capacity, I can still bring my drone on board.
At $129.99, it’s two to four times the price of most backpacks on the market. However, as with anything in life, you truly get what you pay for. Since you’re already investing a substantial amount of money into anything drone-related, you might as well be consistent.
The PolarPro DroneTrekker comes with a TSA-approved lock to keep your drone safe. However, if you travel enough with this particular item, you’ll realize that nine times out of ten, an agent will pull you aside and ask you to open your case or bag so they can inspect its contents. While slogging my way through security at Oakland International Airport, one agent informed me that if I take the LiPo batteries out and put them in a separate bin, I’ll likely avoid having any issues since the agents will be able to identify them immediately. On my next jaunt, I followed her advice and it worked.
Although I’m encouraging you to ditch the case in favor of a more compact and convenient backpack, you should still have one at your disposal. It’s easier to access your gear if you’re flying locally and as long as the case is in your possession at all times, you won’t encounter the same risks that long-distance travel poses. A hard-shell case can also serve as a great take-off point on slightly uneven surfaces or ground with interesting textures. Still, for most situations, owning a high-quality backpack designed to safely carry a drone is a must.
Images: Kara Murphy
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