What is it like to do a RTW trip or long term travel with drone?
Annoying, inconvenient, often times sweaty. Also though, completely worth it.
Looking for a bit more information than just that? My take on the experience is categorized below so that you can jump quickly to the bits that are of most relevance to you and your upcoming travels. After all, this is a LONG article. If you're interested in this subject, it's likely that you're really interested. If you're not interested in this subject, the internet is filled with funny videos of cats and monkeys. Go get 'em!
Foreign Laws Regarding Drone Use
Understanding foreign laws governing drone use is probably the biggest component to watch out for while traveling with a drone. Before I attempted to fly in any country, I would always do a quick read through online to determine if I should be aware of any country specific laws forbidding use of drones. If I found information of concern through an official site or on a drone forum, I'd do a bit of extra research to clarify the issue.
One of the first things to be aware of when reading foreign laws is to know that many laws are specific to commercial drones. Recreational drones are sometimes not subject to the same requirements for certifications, insurance, etc.
When doing research on drone laws you inevitably are going to run into opinions from a bunch of mouth breathing neckbeards who think you'll end up in a bamboo prison if you fly a drone in another country- it's simply not the case. Additionally, lots of armchair experts on the subject mistakenly think that any law they see online applies to all drones, without bothering to do the research on what differentiates recreational drone use versus commercial drone use.
If I ever found info or law I was unclear on, I would reach out the local aviation authority from that country. For example, I had more than a few emails and phone calls with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines to guarantee I wouldn't find myself in trouble for flying a drone there.
At the end of the day, you're the one who's going to have a big remote in their hands. We all know there is nothing inconspicuous about flying so if you're in the wrong, you're likely going to get called out on it.
Better to Beg Forgiveness Than to Ask Permission
On the flip side of being cautious, if you want to make french toast, you gotta break a few eggs. Much like the United States, many foreign governments find themselves confused with just how to regulate drone use. In these cases, you may just have to go for it and fly using common sense rules.
- Stay under 400 ft in elevation.
- Don't fly in a manner that puts people at risk (above crowds, in front of passenger planes, etc)
- Stay away from airports, government buildings, and military bases. (5 miles is the law in the United States. Any closer and you would need to notify the Air Traffic Control Tower)
Physically Carrying the Drone
What. A. Pain. In. The. Ass.
Easily the worst part of bringing a drone with you around the world is actually bringing a drone around the world with you.
If you want to get any interesting footage, you need to bring the drone on daily adventures. This means your day bag is now your drone bag, so in addition to your drone you have to pack food, water bottle, light jacket, sunscreen, etc into your drone bag. Feels heavy? You betcha!
Imagine a beautiful, clear day and you're going to do a 5 hour mountain hike. Of course, you're taking the drone with you because you're going to do an epic Point-of-Interest 360 degree video at the peak. 4.5 hours into the hike, wind picks up out of nowhere and you just lugged a robot that can fly up the side of a mountain. That's what disappointment feels like.
Carrying the Drone on the Airplane
Instead of a carry-on bag with toys and treats, you now have a carry on bag that is 100% fragile and filled with robot. That means that you're carrying two bags on you whenever you are actually moving between destinations. Even if you're an ultra light backpacker and only bring a few extra pairs of underwear, you're going to be loaded up like a sherpa when its time to go to the airport, train, or bus.
hile I may not have had any major hassles by security or customs, officers did seem to show special interest in the drone from time to time. I imagine this is a trend that will slowly fade as the tech becomes more commonplace. The only time I had my drone confiscated was by security getting onto a Princess Cruise. They simply kept the drone in a locked room that I could “check out” whenever we got into a port of call. I completely understand the cruise ships don't want to become aircraft carriers if its at all preventable.
Having to Fly Extremely Cautiously 24/7.... or bring extra parts
I do my best to fly cautiously so that I pose no danger to people. I think that's a good rule that everyone can get behind.
When I'm in the U.S. though, I'm willing to fly the drone in closer proximity to trees, cliffsides, etc in order to get a more dynamic shot. When traveling though you can't get as risky with your shots- replacement parts are hard to get a hold of and too much of a hassle to carry many of them with you.
When I had a propeller failure (obligatory video) in Austria and had to order a new body shell for my P3, I had to do a rush order on parts from a UK provider to be delivered to our Germany apartment. It was not easy and far from cheap. If I had been in a remote part of Vietnam when it happened, I would have ended up lugging around a non functioning drone for more than 2 months.
Broken drones are not a problem- they can be fixed. The bigger tragedy is missing the shots you wanted to take because you can't get your hands on replacement parts.
The list of potential dangers grows longer and longer the more your travel: territorial birds, sudden rain showers/drizzle, rogue wind gusts, sightseeing helicopter tours that are not concerned with minimum altitudes (looking at you Dubai/New Zealand).
Worrying about it Getting Stolen
As if worrying about breaking the drone by your own hand isn't enough, you also have the stress of knowing you have a high profile, expensive piece of tech in your bag that is ripe for stealin'.
Aside from someone stealing the drone from our room when we were out and about, it isn't out of the question that we could attract attention and end up getting mugged somewhere such as a hiking trail. A drone in the sky is the ultimate sign that you have something worth stealing. While the best way to prevent theft is just to be alert of your surroundings it can be difficult to keep your court awareness up while the drone is in the air.
There were a few specific times during the trip where I didn't fly because the area seemed a bit on the rough. (The hotel attendant in Ho Chi Minh grabbed me before I walked out the door and pulled me in saying someone would drive by and snatch the controller). Remember, you're not just taking out the drone and remote for the audience that inevitably gathers. You're also inevitably pulling out an iPad or smartphone, as well as giving a peak at whatever valuables you're carrying in your drone travel bag.
INSURANCE: There is no small price tag associated with owning a UAV. We made sure to get the higher coverage from WorldNomads so that we would be covered up to $3,000 total with a $1,500 per item limit.
You'll Always Have An Audience
While traveling the world, I would wager that I had people watching me fly over my shoulder at least 80% of the time I used my Phantom 3. This isn't really much different than the United States though and in well traveled areas drones attract much less attention. Flying a drone won't draw a crowd in Phi Phi or in Bali but in less traveled areas of South East Asia sometimes it felt like the entire town showed up to see what I was doing.
My experiences with onlookers was 99% positive. Kids absolutely love the drone and some of my most memorable shots are of them chasing the drone low to the ground or just trying to jump up and grab it. I was amazed by how many times I would be totally alone near a jungle and 5 minutes after the drone was in the sky, I'd have four kids peaking over my shoulder to see the video.
My only negative experience the whole trip was at Monkey Island in New Zealand where an older woman was convinced that I was going to use the drone to spy on people. I don't know how I'm supposed to spy on anyone with something that sounds like a gas weedwacker, but long story short, she was an absolute delight to have met and seemed really well informed...
Traveling with a Drone is a Sure Fire Way to Become a Better Pilot and Videographer
Without a doubt my skill has improved in the past 8 months. I can say with confidence that I'm no longer the very worst Phantom pilot on this earth-probably still rank in the bottom 1% though. I haven't maimed myself, hurt anyone else, and I've only crashed the drone once.
I've used the drone as often as possible and am constantly pushing myself to try new ideas for shots as well as shoot new subjects. While traveling, I've had the time to learn more about how to use filters properly and how to use the manual settings as well. These sort of details are second nature to anyone with photography experience but are completely uncharted territory for someone who just wanted to use a flying robot to get "cool shots".
For our travels, I forced myself to work off one battery to save weight in the drone bag. Using a single battery will force you to become an expert at planning all your shots ahead of time. Before launching your drone you'll become accustomed to building a mental list of shots that you need to nail before you land. Before you know it, your flight times will become shorter and shorter.
Yes, the Benefits of Traveling with a Drone make it Completely Worth It
If you're still questioning whether to bring a drone on your trip I hope I've at least brought up some points that you previously had not thought about. You'll want to consider the methods of transportation you'll be using, the drone laws of the countries you'll be visiting, and finally, if you want to deal with the very real hassle of bringing the drone out with you on your daily adventures.
Even though there are quite a few drawbacks to carrying the drone with on such a long trip, I can honestly say that some of the best video we created is a result of having the drone with us. Now, if I the drone had been stolen during the trip or I'd crashed it into the side of a mountain, I might not be singing the same tune.
At the end of any weighing of pros and cons, I have a 3 minute long 360 degree video of Allison and I fighting with sticks at the top of a mountain in New Zealand. It's the little things for me, and a video like this kind of makes its all worth it to me.
OTHER RELEVANT TECH: If you're looking to take your video production to the next level on your trip, you'll get more bang for your buck by springing for an external microphone and a powered gimbal for the GoPro you already likely own.