When switched off and transported by passengers on a plane, drones are considered Personal Electronic Devices - PED - (such as phones, laptops, cameras, etc.), due to the fact that they are powered by lithium-ion batteries. These devices present a potential flight threat because of the amount of heat and energy this kind of batteries may release in the event of a short-circuit, shock or thermal event (accidents have already occurred, and incidents linked to lithium batteries shipped on board commercial aircraft are reported every week).
Safety recommendations from the European Cockpit Association
- Always carry your drone with you in the cabin as carry-on luggage. It will prevent it from being subject to loading/unloading damage, and in the case of battery fire the crew will be able to deal with the issue efficiently, whilst in the cargo hold an uncontained fire may occur unnoticed.
- Any spare batteries must be transported as carry-on luggage and should be individually protected against short-circuits. If the battery power rating is greater than 100Wh, the number of spares is limited to 2 and the airline approval is required prior to the flight. 160Wh is the maximum acceptable power rating for air transport. Bigger batteries should be shipped as fully regulated cargo.
- Lithium-ion batteries allowed for air transport must have met the requirements of UN Manual of Tests and Criteria (see below). If the battery manufacturer manual or indications on the battery do not provide this information, or in the case of customised batteries, it may not be safe for transport by air, and you would be liable for prosecution for endangering air safety if an incident happens.
- Do not hesitate to contact your airline and to advise the check-in/boarding personnel that you are carrying a drone with lithium battery(s). This especially applies if you are not sure of the applicable requirements for the battery and if the luggage containing it is to be loaded in the cargo compartment of the aircraft. In the case of abnormal heat or smoke coming out of the drone or one of its spare batteries during the flight, immediately inform the cabin crew: they are trained to cope with such situation if the alert is promptly raised.
For more information
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requires as per Doc9284 the following provisions to be observed for PED (and subsequently for drones belonging to passengers):
- batteries can be carried by passengers or crew for personal use only
- batteries should be carried as carry-on baggage
- if batteries are carried in checked baggage, measures must be taken to prevent unintentional activation
- batteries and cells must be of a type which meets the requirements of each test in the UN Manual of Tests and Criteria, Part III, subsection 38.3. (ask the drone or battery manufacturer, or airline staff during check-in in case of doubt about this provision, which is of paramount importance as it implies the battery is certified to sustain all possible adverse conditions that can be encountered during flight)
- any spare battery must be transported as carry-on luggage (absolutely forbidden as checked-in luggage, remember this point when packing your luggage and advise the airline staff or cabin crew if, for any reason, your carry-on luggage will be loaded in the cargo hold)
- spare batteries must be individually protected, to prevent short circuits (by placement in original retail packaging or by insulating terminals, e.g. by taping over exposed terminals or placing each battery in a separate plastic bag or protective pouch);
Drones with batteries of power rating greater than 100 Wh are subject to additional restrictions (to find out the power rating of your drone batteries, check the user manual or read the inscriptions on the battery itself, and remember that Power Rating (Wh) = Capacity (Ah) x Nominal Discharge Current (V)):
- The approval of the operator is required (check with the airline before buying your ticket)
- The batteries must not exceed 160Wh power rating
- The number of spare batteries is limited to 2 (two) spare, that must be shipped in accordance with the above exposed requirements (as carry-on luggage only, and protected against short-circuits)