Chappie is not the prettiest drone around. He has spent some time traveling the world and he has the scratches and dents to prove it.
The advice below is what I've found to true while on the road for more than ten months. The tips aren't infallible; they don't apply to commercial drones, and please, if you've got great drone travel advice of your own, share it with us in the comments section!
1. Play it Low Key to Prevent Theft
Your drone is expensive and it just so happens, thieves love to steal valuable items. There isn’t much you can do to stay low-key once you’ve launched a flying robot into the air, but for transportation beforehand, consider a subtle bag. Mine was $60 on ebay. I deliberately bought something without drone logos, DJI branding, etc.
The bag is boring personified- designed with such creative apathy, it's a wonder it was ever manufactured at all. It's the milksteak of drone bags. The best case scenario is that the average passerby might assume I stole a backpack from a homeless guy. No one wants to touch it, let alone steal it.
What it lacks in looks it makes up for in utility. There is plenty of storage inside of the bag in foam cut outs. The foam is also plentiful offering a wide area of protection around the drone itself so that it is well protected from bumps and bruises during transport. While the bag looks like a 5-year old's drawing of a backpack, the bag overall is as sleek and low-key looking as possible while offering a reasonable amount of protection to your drone.
Update 4/28/2016: This bag has now been to 20 countries and spent 10 months on the road. Two of those months were spent bouncing around on the back of a rebar luggage rack during our Vietnam motorcycle trip. The bag has had to be sewn twice while we've been in south east Asia. While this might sound like a huge problem, its nothing that $1.50 USD couldn't fix.
I recently found Bag for $45 on Amazon with free shipping.
2. Use Your Drone Bag as Your Carry-on Bag
If you just dropped $1,000 on a drone, you probably don't want to cheap out on the carrying case. You decided you are definitely buying a hard plastic case. Aside from being a higher profile carrying solution to the bag I mentioned above, let me raise an issue you may have not considered: Your drone will be your carry-on luggage for the duration of your trip.
If you keep the case size small you can simply take your drone onto the plane as your carry on. Your drone will be cozy and safe in the overhead compartment that way.
Despite what you may have heard, there are no current laws about taking a drone as carry-on luggage onto the plane. Your drone is much less likely to get damaged from negligent handling or have something go lost on the its way to the baggage pick up area.
DJI Phantom 3 batteries should not travel as checked baggage either for safety reasons. As someone pointed out in the comments section, you may want to even go the extra mile and get a Lipo battery travel bag for flights. I don't use them and they aren't an airline requirement for traveling with your drone but the extra precaution can't hurt.
Now that you’re using your drone bag as carry on, let's make this even easier with the next tip…
3. Keep All Your Valuables in One Place While in Transit
This might be counter-intuitive, but since you already have essentially $1k sitting in your carry on bag, you might as well throw your portable hard drive, laptop, and anything else expensive in the bag as well. The reason for this is two fold:
Nothing expensive should be in your checked bag anyway. (Either your entire bag or some of the items in it WILL disappear during your trip).
You will be paying attention to where your drone bag is and that it's being treated delicately. Don’t your other expensive electronics deserve the same love?
I completely get that some people would argue to split up your valuables but the reality of travel is that you will only have enough room in some seats to keep eyes on one bag (or keep that one bag on your lap). Whether in a small van, a overnight bus, or in a taxi, my drone bag travels next to my person.
*I fly or take buses in this packing style. When we arrive somewhere, I repack so that I only have drone equipment in the bag and leave everything else of value locked up at the hotel.
4. Fly Conservatively While Abroad
Maverick may have lived his life in the danger zone, but there is no denying that his flying resulted in a dead Goose and a widowed Meg Ryan. Flying drones in foreign countries is not a good place for you to prove what a renegade you can be. Research and follow the drone laws of whatever country you are visiting-you don't want to end up in some bamboo cage for violating military airspace somewhere.
Confused about local laws? When it doubt, there are a few common sense rules when flying your recreational use, non commercial drone:
Stay more than 2 km away from airports.
Stay within 300 M horizontally of yourself.
Keep line of sight on the drone.
Don’t fly near military areas.
Don’t fly in high winds.
Don’t fly over people or crowds.
Don’t fly over roads.
5. Protect the Gimbal at All Cost
Think of your drone as two pieces of a really pricey pie. You have the flying robot part, and you have the mini 4k steadicam strapped to its tummy. The gimbal is the magic glue that holds them both together and makes your footage smooth and buttery.
Since the gimbal is essential in making everything work, you need to protect it!
Keep the plastic guard and foam block in place whenever transporting the drone. You can buy aftermarket pieces for this, but the free parts that came in the box when you bought your drone work just as well (providing you didn’t throw them out already). I'm still using the plastic camera stabilizer as well as the original foam piece that came in the retail box.
Don’t transport the drone with the battery installed. If by some crazy stroke of bad luck the battery is activated, the gimbal is going to get burnt out as it tries to go through its start up calibration but is blocked by the guards holding it in place. As unlikely as this sounds, it can happen.
6. Double Check that Your Propellers are Tight
One of the most cited reasons for crashes according to DJI is that props sometimes spin off. This makes no sense at all sense they're self tightening. However, it only takes an extra 5 seconds to slow down and make sure that the props are thoroughly tightened before you fly.
While this shouldn’t happen with self tightening propellers, it can be avoided. When you spin the blades on they will stop by themselves when they are close to tight- at that point, give them an extra 1/8 turn to make them hand tight. Be careful not to over-tighten the propellers- you don't want to strip the threads.
If you live your life without watching your $1,000 flying camera robot tumble from the sky after it spits off a propeller, your life is that much richer. Instead, watch mine:
7. Prepare for the Worst by Carrying a Small Repair Kit
The last thing you want when traveling with your drone is to suffer an accident and not be able to fly anymore. Something as simple as knocking the drone off a table or catastrophic as a fall from the sky can happen easier than you think. Be like a boy scout and make sure you’re prepared by carrying a few small parts and tools with you.
After repairing my drone with a new shell after a crash, I now have sets of replacement screws, T6/T8 Torx (to take shell apart) , assorted small flathead and Phillips screwdrivers, 2mm hex driver (for motor mounts) and a few other random parts such as rubber gimbal mounts. The Torx drivers I mentioned are appropriate for the Phantom 3. If you have a different model of Phantom you may need different sized drivers.
Once every few weeks I also make sure that all of the ‘important’ screws on the drone are hand tight and not working themselves loose. This included screw on the body and the motor mounts. I also inspect the props and motor arms for any damage or cracks.
If you haven’t already, you may want to review this DJI forum article as well as there are a lot of great points on how to avoid catastrophe in the first place.