Apollo 11, Moon Dust and You: Regular Preventive Maintenance for Your Drone

Launch of Apollo 11
Launch of Apollo 11

Launch of Apollo 11

When Apollo 11 blasted off sending the first man to walk the moon, NASA and the astronauts were prepared for just about everything. Yet, with all the planning and forethought, they never imagined what a menace a little dust from outer space would become. Moon Dust, that is.

Moon Dust is a fine powder, but it cuts like glass. It’s formed when meteoroids crash into the moon, pulverizing rocks and dirt. The tiny grains are sharp and jagged, and cling to nearly everything. From the first Lunar mission to the last, Moon Dust remained a nuisance, coating spacesuits and eating away layers of moon boots.

Steps on the moon
Steps on the moon

While Moon Dust won’t be much of a problem to your drone operations, construction dust and airborne-environmental debris can be-especially if you operate in industrial or dusty environments. Besides the normal preflight once-over, you should be scheduling normal in-depth maintenance for your drone and UAS system that can help address this-and other potential problems. Depending on your drone, this can be simple, or it can be quite extensive. But whatever you do, repeat it on a regular basis to help catch small problems before they turn into big trouble. Here’s a list to get you started.

Phantom 4
DJI Phantom 4

Hull cleaning

Besides keeping a shiny clean aircraft, hull cleaning also gives you a chance to inspect the condition of your drone and find hidden cracks or damage. First, inspect the aircraft using a deliberate pattern. II like to start on the top, work my way around the hull inspecting the arms, the main fuselage and then the undercarriage. Once inspected, I wipe the entire aircraft down (excluding the lens) using a soft cotton cloth with a non-abrasive, non-rinsing cleaner like Myer’s, Formula 409 or Fantastic (all non-bleach formulas).
Make sure to check and clean the battery compartment paying special attention to connectors and guides. For sensors, use a window cleaner and wipe with a clean cloth or cotton swab afterward.

DJI Camera
DJI Camera

Lens and filter checks

Never touch or clean your camera lens unless something actually gets on the glass. Your lens should always be covered with a filter-clear or otherwise-and that also with a lens cover on top. Should something get on the lens, try removing it with compressed air first then a lens cleaning cloth that has not been used before.

Never wipe a lens or filter with your shirt or other material as it can cause permanent damage. Your lens is one of the most important components of your aircraft. It should be treated that way. For filters, regularly check for any unusual wear or marks that can indicate improper storage or other problems. Replace any damaged filters immediately (you should always have a set of back-ups).

Prop checks

Check the blades for nicks, cracks or chips and replace any that show damage or wear. Also check the hub that connects to the motor and do the same. Some pilots advocate replacing props on a regular basis, but as long as there’s no damage, I keep the same ones flying. One exception is a hard landing or minor accident where the drone is not damaged. In that case, replace all props as a precautionary measure.

Drone Motor
Drone Motor

Motor check and maintenance

Inspect the motors for any damage or debris-especially if you store your drone in a soft foam case. Even if you always use motor caps when storing the drone, foreign objects and debris can still sometimes find its way into the motor openings and present a potential flight hazard. Blow out motors to remove any dust or dirt after each flight-and use a vacuum to remove any visible debris that you can see. When inspecting the motors, pay special attention to the tensioning springs on quick-mount props-dirt and dust loves to stick here and can cause prop mounting problems over the long haul. Clean any “sticky” dirt with a cotton swab. It’s also a good idea to slightly lubricate the spring with another swab moistened with gear oil. IMPORTANT: this should be just enough oil to get the swab slightly damp. Do not drip oil directly on the spring or allow it to get into the motor.

Screw torque check

Your aircraft generates varying amounts of vibration while flying. This can have the adverse effect of loosening screws and other parts on the platform. Make sure to check all screws and connectors regularly. Use an ordinary screwdriver, Star Wrench or Allen Wrench; nothing fancy is required. And be careful not to over-tighten.

Phantom Battery
Phantom Battery

Battery check and cycle

Batteries are the lifeblood of your aircraft. Know how long to keep them in service. DJI warranty is 6 months or 200 charges. Always rotate your batteries so that regular use is distributed evenly among all of your stock. To check battery health, push the front button and hold it for 5 seconds. The lights tell the story. (see chart)

Battery Chart
Battery Chart

Battery Chart from early DJI Phantom Manual

Remember, you can also use the DJI Go app when the aircraft is powered on and connected. This will show you current battery status including times charged, voltage by cell, and pilot settings such as critical and low battery warning levels.

Battery Status
Battery Status

Battery Status as displayed on DJI Go App

You may not be battling Moon Dust like an Apollo astronaut, but regular maintenance will go a long way towards keeping your drone from inadvertently crashing into the moon-or any other unintended landing surface-due to failures that could have been prevented by a little preventive care.