What it is Like to Fly a Drone Near a Volcano… And Then Crash It

If you watched the news or were connected to the internet the first week of June, chances are good that you have seen a video of a drone crashing into an erupting volcano. Well, that drone was mine and it got completely disintegrated. In my latest video, I share what it is like to fly a drone around a volcano and what you have to look out for.

First of all, as fellow camera nerds, let’s get the gear question out of the way: on this trip to the volcano, I hiked out with both the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and my newest acquisition: the DJI FPV drone. The reason why I decided to take both drones is that they serve very different purposes for us filmmakers.

The Mavic 2 Pro with its one-inch sensor, variable aperture, and incredibly stable flight characteristics allowed me to film slow pans and tilts even in low light conditions. The DJI FPV, on the other hand, has a far inferior camera but its maneuverability gives it not only a unique flight experience but also a look that only FPV drones can provide. After some grading magic in post-production, you can still get some decent images out of it. I also shot on the ground with a RED Komodo and a Canon R6.

No matter what drone you are flying with there are few things you need to keep in mind when flying a drone around an active volcano.

First of all: turbulence. As a volcano erupts, hot gasses are emitted and the air above the lava stream is heated up to extremely high temperatures. This hot air mixed with colder Atlantic winds common in Iceland can cause significant turbulence that is near impossible to predict. This includes air pockets of less dense air where your drone could suddenly drop or updrafts that just push it around.

These thermal drafts are particularly felt when flying FPV drones in manual mode, without any GPS support or stabilization. If you don’t pay attention for just a moment it could very well be the last flight… like it was in my case. For a more detailed description of the crash itself, skip to 4:19 in the video above.

If you master the winds another phenomenon unique to some volcanic eruptions can hit you… and your drone: raining rocks. As some of the lava mixes with the air during the eruption, very light rocks are formed and catapulted into the air, and carried hundreds of meters away from the crater. Depending on the size, these may not destroy the drone itself but could damage the propellers or camera lens.

Lastly, timing is everything. For the best results, you will need to combine the weather conditions (Iceland has some crazy winds even without the volcanic updrafts), the right sunlight (golden and blue hour work best, of course), or the volcanic eruption itself. I gave myself four days to capture this volcano — which was erupting like a geyser every seven to 10 minutes — to ensure I would be able to film it in various conditions and from different angles. There were certainly many times when I couldn’t fly the drones due to extreme winds, that’s when I focussed on capturing this spectacle with my RED Komodo.

During my trip, I filmed a staggering amount of footage, much of which I will release on my channel over the next weeks and months. So make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel and tag along behind the scenes on my Instagram.

About the author: Joey Helms is a Chicago-based Creative Director and Video Director best known for crashing a drone into an erupting volcano. His work focuses on the documentary style as he tells stories from around the globe. He is running a semi-successful YouTube channel where he shares his work and tutorials for those who want to take the next step in their filmmaking journey and use cinema gear.

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