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How to Make a Drone Float and Why You Need to Concern Yourself with It
There are submersible drones and there are flying drones, but mixing the two functions does not work. Flying drones are lightweight, and that means their shells are light-duty, flexible material that would cave in underwater.
They also usually have vents to keep a cooling airflow so that the electronics don’t overheat. They are controlled by radio waves that work best when kept in line of sight.
But drone pilots love to get video over the water and in inclement weather. So it is inevitable that at some point your might crash your drone in the water, or get it wet in the rain.
Once your drone gets wet, extensive damage to the internal parts is likely and can be enough to destroy your drone completely. So how can we mitigate this danger?
**Drones can be made to float with attachable pontoons or rescue jackets. They can be made water-resistant with a drone wet suit or other water-resistant treatments. There are also three waterproof drones on the market that you could choose from. **
I have found several methods and pieces of equipment that can help prevent the damage and loss of your drone if you happen to get it too wet or in case of a water crash. Let’s take a look.
Why would you put your drone in the water? #
Some of the most satisfying videos that can be shot with a drone are over the water. Watching whales breach the surface of the ocean and spout water high into the air. Following a surfer as they glide out in front of a wave. Following a ship coming into port from the sea. These are exciting shots.
I have made videos of nephews skiing behind a powerboat in several lakes, and going crabbing in Oregon with my cousin. While they hauled in the crab pots, I flew my Phantom around the boat trying to capture the moment when full loads of live crab were brought up from the bay. Wow, what a feast we had, but that is the subject of another blog.
Let’s explore other reasons you might expose your drone to water.
A search and rescue mission in bad weather is not uncommon. Public safety pilots can often find themselves being called on suddenly to launch in the rain or snow. A lost child or a vehicle over the side of the road are events that we find happening more and more.
Why would water be a detriment to a drone? #
Basically, water and electricity don’t mix. Saltwater is extremely corrosive, even after it is dry. This can cause your parts to oxidize and lose continuity with the processors weeks and months after exposure.
The combination of saltwater and oxygen can corrode metal parts ten times faster than rust. Even freshwater can cause temporary short circuits while flying that will bring your drone down.
Not just rusty motors but damaged batteries, faulty sensors, and short circuit processor boards are probable effects of water exposure.
» MORE: Can You Fly a Drone in the Rain? (Explained for Beginners)
Methods to mitigate water damage #
One thing that I have learned is that if your drone is not manufactured as waterproof, then you cannot absolutely waterproof it. There are too many unprotected areas in the shell or small cracks that you cannot see to guarantee yourself that there are no leaks at all.
But you can make your drone highly water-resistant. I have been able to try some of these ideas and others were a total surprise to me. I didn’t know that this issue had been taken on by so many entrepreneurs. Here are some of the best things I found.
Whatever floats your drone (How to make your drone float) #
Drones don’t float. Except for the three waterproof drones that are being manufactured for sale to the public, no drones that I have seen tested are able to stay on the surface of the water without some sort of aid.
Now I will add the caveat that I have heard claims that some of the newer DJIs can be submerged and still function when brought out of the water, but they still don’t float.
However, several systems are being made that will allow your drone to stay on top of the surface of the water. In fact, flotation devices for drones have been around since 2014. Looking at several websites, we find two main types of flotation attachments.
First we have the basic pontoon-style device. For smaller models, there are foam columns that fit into molded plastic brackets. This raises the drone by a couple of inches and the foam is extremely buoyant.
This pontoon design looks very similar to the pontoons on helicopters used in open water rescues from years ago. Several videos have been posted, using the newer DJI models. They show the drone landing in the water, the motors shutting down, and the drone effectively floating in calm to moderate swells.
One video does mention that you need to keep a close eye on the drone and take off fast if you see a wave or large swell coming because it can flip the drone over. The pontoons will still keep the drone afloat but water will get in the upside-down aircraft.
Another model for the smaller drone is large Christmas Tree looking balls that attach under each prop. Both styles appear effective. Prices start around $30.
Water Strider for Phantom #
DroneRafts.com has a device they call the Water Strider specifically made for the Phantom. It has long legs that spread the footprint of the Phantom well outside the normal base and then attach to large hollow floats at the end of each leg.
The videos look promising and I plan on testing one of these out myself. They list the price at $129 and I don’t find them available on Amazon.
Rescue Jacket #
The Rescue Jacket seems to be a popular addition to the market. It is a square of two-inch thick foam padding that is slightly larger than the footprint of whichever model drone you are ordering it for.
There are cutouts in the foam that allow you to push the landing legs through the foam so that it stays in place just underneath the drone body. In the case of the Phantom Rescue Jacket, the camera and gimbal are still submerged, but the aircraft stays afloat.
All of the rescue jackets I saw used were in conjunction with a wet suit (discussed later), so the jacket kept the drone above water and the wet suit kept the water out of the drone.
Downside to flotation devices #
No matter which flotation device you may choose to buy or make, they all have the same disadvantage. They add weight to the drone and change the aerodynamics. It would be very important that you do extensive test flying after you attach one of these devices to see how it will handle.
Not only should you test in a calm atmosphere, but in heavier winds, also. The wind resistance will be affected in some manner and it may be more difficult to fly.
Also, with increased wind resistance and added weight, the drain on the battery will be higher and you might not get your usual flight times.
How to make your drone water resistant #
Even if you’re not planning to land your drone on water and don’t need it to float, there may be times your drone is otherwise exposed to water. This could be from rain, damp ground, etc. Here are some ways to improve your drone’s water resistance.
If your drone has taken an accidental dip, here’s what to do to rescue it:
» MORE: What to Do If Your Drone Gets Wet
Conformal Silicone Treatments #
Coating all the electronic parts of your drone with a silicone conformal liquid is one method of water resistance protection. MG Chemicals is one manufacturer of conformal silicone that you actually paint onto the processor boards and exposed conductive surfaces.
This of course requires you to take your drone apart to be able to get to all the surfaces necessary. Once you are there, you simply use the provided brush to spread the liquid on all the parts.
As it dries, it leaves behind a slightly blue color so that you can see what you have covered. The drying time is just a few seconds and you can fly as soon as you put everything back together.
You do not need to treat the brush-less motors because they are not susceptible to water damage.
In the few reviews of this system that I have found, those who are testing the process have nothing bad to say. It works and they have commented that every drone they have will be treated.
No one, though, has stated if the coating needs to be re-applied over time or how long it lasts.
Drone Wet Suits #
At PhantomRain.org I found a new product that I had not been aware of. Drone wet suits are being custom-made for several drones models. Included in their stock are water-resistant cloth covers for the Evo2, Mavic 3, Phantom 4, Air 2, Mavic 2, Mavic Pro, and the Mavic Mini 2.
The major concern with water exposure is the battery, especially the battery on-button. These coverings have been designed with special attention to covering the batteries and battery compartment, along with the vents, shell junction points, and other holes and exposures.
Again, this is not waterproof but rather, water-resistant. Leaks can still happen, so don’t plan to plunge your drone in the water and have it survive.
Reading through the reviews of drone wet suits, I find many very diverse comments. Several people have made videos of flying in the rain, both light rain and heavy downpours.
All these videos and comments seem to say that they are not experiencing any adverse effects, however, to be a proper review you need to fly a drone of the same model with and without the wet suit to see if it works and to what extent.
Unfortunately, I know of no one who is willing to possibly sacrifice a good drone just to test it in the water. Most pilots express that if you are going to fly in inclement weather, it is better to have a wet suit on than not.
Pros and cons of water resistance treatments #
It seems to me that a comparison of the conformal silicone coating and wet suits is not so much a side-by-side comparison where you can chart one against the other, but more of a look at what preferences the individual may have.
The conformal silicone seems to be better at preventing water from interfering with the electronics of the drone. The cost of the solution is extremely reasonable, starting at around $12 a bottle, and it is readily available at Walmart, hobby stores, and online.
The major downside is that you need to totally disassemble your drone. You need to be aware of where you have applied it and where you might have missed, and except for a blue tint, there is no way to test the coverage.
The wet suit does not require that you take your drone apart but is a bit of a struggle to put onto your drone and once on, you really don’t feel like taking it off. The protection is not 100%, as there might be small cracks or joints that you can’t see to make sure they are covered.
There is a concern of overheating as the wet suit covers the drone shell vents. There are not that many retailers of drone wet suits, so online purchases are the only way you can get them.
The starting price is around $90 and depends on the model of drone you have.
Waterproof drones #
There are three mainstream drone companies producing waterproof drones at this time.
Swellpro has four models that are totally submersible, float, and can even right themselves if turned upside down in the water. The features of the Swellpro models are much like most DJI models and the reviews of Swellpro are great.
If you are exclusively involved in over-water operations, Swellpro is well worth checking out. Their models run from $1000 to $2000.
Power Egg X #
The Power Egg X from Drone Rush is a modular concept aircraft. You can take off the legs and props and turn into into a handheld camera with a gimbal.
Put the legs and props back on and encase the body in the waterproof shell that comes with the kit and you have a waterproof package that floats, but you can put the foam pontoons on for a more stable base.
The Power Egg X starts at around $900.
Parrot Hydrofoil #
The Parrot Hydrofoil is not so much a flying drone but Parrot has taken its Parrot Mini and attached it to a boat base.
The drone then becomes the motor for the hydrofoil boat that glides over the water and can be guided much the same as if flying. The difference is that you stay on the surface of the water.
A quick mention is needed of the “Naviator”. Rutgers University has developed a drone that can both fly and swim. Videos show the craft in the air over the test pool then landing, submerging, and swimming around underwater.
It can readily rise to the surface and take off again. Although still in development, the R&D department feels that this could soon be available to the public.
No matter how you feel about flying over water, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of money you might need if you sink your drone and need to replace it.