The Genius Hack For Landing A Drone On Water

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Waterproof drones are big business. Harsh-use cases like nature photography and guidance for rescue operations require a rugged exterior, while novice pilots need tough drones designed to withstand bumps, bruises and inclement weather. Even experienced hobbyists and professional drone pilots can benefit from a model ready to weather a sudden rainstorm or unlucky tumble into deep water.

Unfortunately, dedicated waterproof drones are also big money. While beginner drones can be picked up for a few hundred dollars, a quick Amazon search shows top-level waterproof drone models retailing in the low four figures. That's serious outlay for a professional drone pilot, let alone a hobbyist. Not spending that kind of money risks an even pricier penalty, however. If a pilot loses their drone in the drink and it's not waterproof, they're stuck with either a costly replacement or an even more costly upgrade. It seems like responsible drone pilots are stuck: pay through the nose now, or pay even more later.

Drone DIY

At least one drone operator has found a slick hack to save hundreds on a waterproof drone: grab some soda bottles (via GiGadget). The video shows a classic four-rotor drone with a 20-ounce plastic soda bottle linked securely to each foot. The carefully balanced bottles act like pontoons, providing enough displacement that the vehicle can actually land in the middle of a lake. No tragic splashdown, no water damage to sensitive components. Instead, it just floats.

Another enterprising drone pilot took the concept and then went one better. UrbanAtWork put their 3D printer on the case, crafting secure, waterproof linking collars to guarantee a firm connection between the drone and its soda-bottle pontoons. Since more than a few drops of water in any one of those bottles could throw the whole thing off balance and likely plunge it beneath the waves, maintaining stability is key. With custom-made collars, all four bottles should stay dry as a bone.

Robot Rescue

Drone operators can also take a hands-on approach to potential water exposure. Water damage has been a hazard to aircraft since the Wright brothers, and now many mechanically inclined drone operators have already applied solutions common to larger aircraft to their portable flyers.

For some drone models, water protection is as simple as shopping online. Many drone companies offer manufacturer approved wetsuits, tight-fitting synthetic wraps that protect water-sensitive components while still allowing the machine to fly. Drone wetsuits generally cost around $100 — not cheap, but orders of magnitude cheaper than a dedicated waterproof drone.

If no wetsuits are available or prices are prohibitive, there are also DIY options. A careful combination of elbow grease with conformal coatings, anti-corrosives, and waterproof tape can make a drone water-resistant, if not waterproof. HobbyHenry provides an excellent breakdown of the process, including multiple approaches based on the user's level of DIY experience. Cuatro Force on YouTube also offers a step-by-step guide for beginners.

Prepping for Takeoff

Soda-bottle specials aren't in any danger of replacing actual waterproof drones, of course. Pop pontoons don't solve the underlying problem: the drone itself is still fragile and susceptible to water damage. One bad breeze could still mean oblivion. Those bottles aren't exactly SCUBA-rated either, and the slightest leak in any of them could render the whole apparatus useless. Sealant and anti-corrosives come with a similar issue: they work, more or less, but they degrade with time and use, eventually leaving the pilot with the same problem.

That said, hacks are fun. Soda bottle pontoons are a truly elegant 99-cent fix for what currently prices out at a mulit-thousand-dollar problem: drones that are waterproof out of the box, like DJI's M30, are still $10k+. Likewise DIY solutions, which offer much of the utility of waterproof drones at a fraction of the cost. Until waterproof drone prices come down, fiscally frugal flyers might consider opening up their machines and proofing themselves. Alternatively, drink more caffeine and give the pontoon thing a shot.