How Dangerous is Your Drone?

How Dangerous is Your Drone?

It's pretty common knowledge by now that flying drones around can easily go wrong. To date I have no idea how many videos I've seen of pilots that, either out of silliness or stupidity, have crashed one into someone else's favorite head. Obviously being a cautious and responsible pilot is a given but, do you still need to be concerned when it's sitting innocently on your floor?

Apparently the answer is yes.

For the record, my own personal experience with drone flight is limited to a couple of incredibly fun RC mini-helicopters (with a flight time of a mighty 10 minutes), and a couple of runs with a DJI Phantom. I'm saying that so you know going in that I have no intention of trying to stop you from being an idiotic pilot. I do want to stop you from burning your house to the ground though if that's ok.

How much would you say you know about batteries? I'm sure you have the basic parts down. Use, recharge, use, recharge, and so on...but how often do you leave these big powerful batteries charging while you aren't around. Maybe you even charge them overnight while you sleep, completely ignoring the "DO NOT LEAVE UNATTENDED WHILE CHARGING" notice in the manual you probably never read anyway.

Am I right?

Stop it! Like, right now.

Batteries are such a common thing to us that we often forget how volatile they can be, and the Li-Po batteries that most likely power your drone are on the upper end of that volatility. Understand that this is not specific to a particular brand of drone, it applies to most of them. Of course, mishandling of any battery can lead to explosions, fire, smoke, and risk of poisoning. Let me reiterate my point though, if you are charging a Lithium-Polymer battery you need to pay much closer attention to it. The construction and composition of this type of battery cause them to have a tendency to build up internal gasses while charging. When that happens, they expand and eventually explode into a fire that isn't easy to put out.

To prove my point, let me show you some proof I came across today:

Had this not been next to a concrete wall, it could have been catastrophic. With a majority of people running their photo/video businesses from home I'm sure you can see the greater risk in ignoring something like this.  Despite advances is battery technology these fires are not uncommon. Read your manual and follow the battery safety instructions the manufacturers provide.

Please pay attention to your charging habits, and always check the integrity of your batteries. Especially after you crash your drone.

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Award winning photographer, Fstoppers writer and entrepreneurial consultant David Bickley is wholly engaged in helping people become more. Be it more confident via the portraits and fitness photos that brought him world-wide recognition, or more profitable in business through mentoring... David lives to bring his client's voice out into the world.

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These are the LiPo batteries for the original Phantom. The Phantom 2 batteries are different and don't run the same problems.

With that said, I know people who are charging their batteries inside metal ammo cans so in case something does go wrong it's less of a hazard.

This is why you should read the instructions before you play with things.

LiPo batteries are not only dangerous during charging. Any LiPo battery is dangerous even while not charging. You can puncture a LiPo and cause a serious fire that you probably will not be able to put out. The intermittent bursts you're seeing in the video are from each cell. Yet, people are flying helis and quads (myself included) with unprotected LiPo's. I still try and cover mine as best as I can but it's still nothing that is 100% reliable. Imagine crashing too far from your reach. It only takes a tiny puncture for a LiPo to become a ball of flames and continue for each cell. Then what? This new craze is going to get a lot of people in trouble and hurt because they are making it out to be that "anybody" can just pick one up and go. This is not true at all. I've had helis, cars, and now quads for quite some time and LiPos still scare me. I charge outside, on concrete, in a LiPo bag. Even the very smallest of vehicles I have I charge their batts outside in a bag. People getting into this "hobby" should really be thinking about what they're getting into and do some homework. It's fun but it's also very serious... even from back in the old days with flying gas planes and helis... safety was taken very seriously.

And that's why you use charging and storage bags made from non-flammable material and secured with strong(!) velcro. Those bags are available at low prices from pretty much any RC hobby retailer. That way you only have to deal with the toxic and corrosive smoke in case a pack decides to pop.

There are also safer alternatives like LiFePo battery packs that can take more abuse, at the cost of slightly worse overalll stats (capacity/weight, current capability, …).

That said, you should definitely keep to the guidelines set out in the manuals: don't store a discharged LiPo/LiIon pack, if you store them for long times make sure to recharge them, possibly even cycle them. (You lose a complete charge cycle anyway by charging from ~50%, so no loss there.) Always make sure that the contact pins are secure in the plug shells to avoid them wriggling loose and short-circuit. Keep them at room temperature, since freezing cold or uncomfortably hot temperatures can speed up deterioration or even damage the cells; as a rule of thumb: if you feel comfortable in casual clothes, so will your battery. If a pack gets visibly damaged, e.g. in a crash or because you sat on it, or if it starts to bulge, dispose of it; electronics retailers are a good place, they deal with lithium cells every day.

If you have a pack made from multiple cells (chances are that you have) and it has a balancer plug, make sure to use a proper balancing charger! Unbalanced packs with weak cells will at some point have the weak cell kill the entire pack, leading to a crash or worse effects (sidenote: that also holds for NiMH cells; they have a failure mode where they can go to negative voltage, which will kill the other cells in the pack rather quickly).

On the other hand, don't panic. I've known people who drilled into LiPo batteries without the thing blowing up; I've shorted a pack while soldering on the plugs, and I've also crashed a plane and thus visibly shortened the pack, neither led to catastrophic failure before proper disposal.

And maybe the most important thing: if you want to do RC flying, find your local RC club! Learning to fly from people who have done it for years or even decades beats self-teaching, and they can tell you all the rules, be it legalities of flying, or proper care and maintenance of your expensive toy.

Age old story. Don't blame the tool, blame the operator. The operator needs to be responsible and know his gear well, including the limitations and safety required.

It's crazy how much fire the battery can produce... kind of insane

Actually, the lithium in the batteries for the cameras and cell phone can burn similarly. The only difference with them is that they are encased with plastic and have an internal protection circuit board that prevents over currents, over charging and over discharging. Without that all that protection, they are pretty much just as volatile. Anyone remember the laptop battery recalls of years pass by the major lappie makers?

RC vehicle batteries tend to be bare cells without any protective casing. The national RC car races require the use of only boxed batteries just to avoid the rough handling danger.

I have long considered converting my Milwaukee cordless tools to lithium but as much as I like the lighter weight the RC cells and their handling scare me. I don't want to have to baby sit the batteries, so they remain non-lithium. Case in point, the video. The charger he was using is not a cheapo charger.

That said, if one is willing to provide adequate protection and attention for RC batteries, they can be used without too much incident. He should have kept the cells farther apart so one would not set off the next, though.

Those LiPo batteries are also a bitch to travel with. They used some for the school's rockets and boy did TSA have a field day clearing all the gear!

Didn,t have anything blow/burn up though!

I have 3 good ideas per year. I'm paranoid about this happening. So, I decided to charge my batteries in the dry bathtub. That way, I can go about my life and get my charge on.