Drones are rapidly becoming commonplace among travellers these days, affording as they do, the opportunity to take breathtaking aerial photos and videos, together with the opportunity to indulge your inner 8 year old who likes playing with toys. Especially ones which make satisfying ‘Vrooom’ noises. Though like any nascent technology, the rules governing their use can be obscure, as the bureaucracy struggles to catch up with developments in the field. Especially in China, it can be a little difficult to track down information online if you don’t happen to speak Chinese.
Flying a drone in China.
Firstly, before you can fly a drone in China, you and the drone must be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority (you can do this here). It takes only a few minutes and you will receive a personal QR code which must be displayed on both the aircraft and the controller. Once that’s done you’re more or less good to go. Sort of.
Over the past two years I’ve noticed a marked change in attitudes to drones in China. In the beginning, showing up pretty much anywhere and launching a drone incited only curiosity from passers by and authorities alike. But following a few high-profile incidents, things have changed dramatically. Geo-fencing has been rolled out extensively, meaning that many urban areas, tourist sites, or otherwise sensitive places have made in to mandatory no-fly zones. This has been incorporated in to the drone software, so whereas once I could have (and did) fly a drone over the great wall, or through the centre of Shanghai, now you’ll get an error message and the drones’ motors will not start.
It’s worth checking in advance whether the places you intend to use the drone come under one of these no-fly or restricted-fly zones. In the case of DJI drones, you can do this here.
Even in areas which are not expressly stated as no-fly zones, it’s not uncommon for someone in uniform to appear waving a stick and demanding that you land it immediately. Other times, someone in uniform will appear waving a stick and demanding a go at flying it. There really doesn’t seem to be any consistency so I’ve just taken the old position of ‘forgiveness is easier to get than permission’. I’ll send it up and if someone comes to chase me off, then so be it. I’ll try again a mile or two later.
Travelling with a drone in China.
Taking a drone on your travels can certainly be rewarding if you’re looking for good footage, though it can have it’s downsides. Firstly, it’s an expensive and often fragile piece of kit, which is going to add to your worries every time your bag gets mishandled or you have to leave it out of your sight, for example on long-distance buses or trains. Secondly, many tourist sites which don’t permit drone flying won’t let you through the security gates carrying one either, so you’ll have to get used to entrusting it to guards and locker rooms.
Then there’s the size of the thing. Although there are compact drones on the market these day (DJI’s Mavic & Spark models are selling well lately), our drone, the Phantom 3 Advanced is a mid-sized one. With it’s controller and two spare batteries it weighs about 3kg and takes up an amount of space to equal to a large shoebox. No problem if you’re throwing it in the back of a car, but we travel by motorcycle, by public transport, or occasionally on horseback, and for these things size can be an issue. We’d originally bought one of DJI’s custom backpacks, which are specifically designed to accommodate the drone, but the problem with this is, they accommodate the drone and nothing else. Where am I to put my unwashed socks?
Nowadays we use a CabinZero backpack, these are roomy enough to take the drone and all of it’s accessories, plus a laptop and all of my usual travelling necessities (you know; toilet paper, change of clothes, 18 cans of Dutch lager, and a toothbrush. What do you guys travel with?). It also meets the requirements for carry-on luggage aboard flights, hence the name, I suppose. Which is especially good because the batteries used in the drone are not permitted as checked-in luggage in China and must be stored in your cabin bag.
Splashing out on a few spare batteries is also worthwhile. Most drones will manage about 20-30 minutes of flight on a single battery, and, in the case of ours at least, take an hour or so to recharge. That’s fine when you’re flying from your own back garden, but atop a mountain which took four hours to climb, you want to be able to stay aloft for longer.
Where to fly with a drone in China
Obviously, there are thousands of great places to fly a drone in China, though as I already mentioned, most cities and urban areas are now off-limits. Here are a few we’ve enjoyed which should still be open.
The Great Wall – Kind of a given, isn’t it? The symbol of China and stretched across rugged mountainsides, the Great Wall really lends itself to aerial photography. I actually got told off by the police for this, though it transpired that the site I’d chosen (Badaling) is close to a military base and therefore drones aren’t allowed. But the wall covers thousand of miles, and some are highly remote. I’m sure you can find a better spot.
The Yangtze – China’s mightiest river, with steep mountains to either side can look pretty special from the air, especially at sunrise or sunset.
Shibaozhai – A towering pavilion on a rocky island in the Yangtze. A Great place to try out orbiting ‘point-of-interest’ videos.
The Tagong Grassland – A high altitude grassland on the Tibetan plateau in Western Sichuan. Rolling green hills, snow-capped peaks in the background, and no settlements, cables or electrical interference for miles around. This is the place to find out if the manufacturers claim of 5km+ range is for real.
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