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How Camera Crews Can Fly with Batteries

If there’s one battery that gets all the wrong attention, it’s the Lithium-Ion.

For us film technicians, Lithium-Ion and its cousin Lithium-Polymer batteries are as essential as the gear itself. They are the V-Locks which the big cameras and LED panel lights use and the NP-style batteries or Sony L-series which Audio mixers use.

While there are many flavours, the Lithium-Ion batteries offer the most promising chemistry of all types; giving both high capacity and the high voltage output that professional gear needs.

Filming would come to a standstill without a set of ‘fresh’ Lithium batteries to get through the day for camera, lighting, audio and other departments.

When we’re shooting on location, we rely on our batteries all the more given our remoteness from backups. We need absolute certainty that they will clear airport security no matter where we are. The problem is, not every officer works off the same rule book. Some let us through easily while some make us wait as they confusedly check protocols.

So why all the fuss over Lithium-Ions and what are the rules for Lithium content in batteries?

The Russell Crowe ‘hoverboard’ incident and the subsequent Amazon.com advice reminded us how dangerous Lithium Ion batteries can be.

In truth, other battery types are more dangerous, but the sheer volume of Lithium Ion batteries transported by air annually – over five billion in 2014 – considerably increases the odds of malfunction.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) compiled data showing that 68% of batteries failed due to external and internal short circuits, 15% during charging and discharging and 7% by unintentional activation of devices – all leading to smoke, extreme heat, fire or explosion.

What we need, as film and TV crews, is the assurance that we get our batteries through security without any hassles no matter which carrier we fly with.

Benjamin Franklin said there were two certainties in life: death and taxes. We may have discovered a third: that no two airlines, airports or security officers will treat your batteries in the same way. For most it’s straightforward but a few are ignorant and may even insist you have to leave your rule-abiding batteries behind.

That’s why we have to smooth the path before us with this 1-2-3 Method:

Buy: Buy Li-Ion batteries that are under 160Wh – or under 100Wh for the easiest passage.

Label: Ensure the Volts, Amps or Watt Hour label is visible on the battery.

Print: Print out the relevant page from the airline you’ll be traveling with so to reassure the officers you are meeting their airline’s requirements.

If higher capacities are required, they must travel as separate cargo with all the right hazard forms.

From the time Sony first released the Lithium battery in 1991, they have become so widely adopted and ubiquitous that little thought is now given to their correct handling.

Complicating matters, and giving the Li-Ion batteries a bad name so to speak, is the ‘low cost’ lithium-Ion battery market. Mass produced, and not affiliated with the top tier producers such as Samsung, Panasonic, LG and Sony, they dodge the stringent international manufacturing, testing and transport process. In one such case, the buyer of a poorly performing Li-Ion battery opened it up to discover that the lower cost manufacture had added iron-bars to cheat the weight.

The real reason for concern though is that several incidents purportedly involving lithium batteries have actually set fire to cargo planes. Authorities believe that at least three cargo planes have crashed due to their Lithium Ion cargo. Even with passenger planes, it’s not uncommon to have tens of thousands of Li-Ion batteries in the belly of the plane.

On 1 January 2008 a line was drawn.

American Airlines said no to carrying lithium batteries in any kind of checked baggage. Other airlines soon followed including Air NZ, Qantas and Virgin Australia.

Fast forward to 2016, following closely behind the news that both Boeing and Airbus formally stated that continuing to accept Lithium Ion battery shipments was “an unacceptable risk”, a UN panel is recommending a complete ban on shipments of Lithium-Ion batteries on passenger planes until packaging is developed that meets an acceptable level of safety.

In late February the UN prohibited cargo shipments of lithium-ion batteries on passenger aircraft from 1 April. The ban will continue until until a new fire-resistant packaging standard is implemented, currently expected to be in 2018. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries can still be transported on cargo planes.

THE 100/160 WATT HOUR RULE

Up to 100Wh: take as many on board as your weight limit allows. Put in correct casing.

Up to 160Wh: take only TWO on board, individually wrapped.

Over 160Wh: must be sent as freight YOU CANNOT PUT LOOSE LITHIUM ION BATTERIES IN CHECKED-IN LUGGAGE.

However you can if they are attached to the equipment they power (and the off/on switch is secure).

Wh = Watt Hour

If you can’t see Wh on your battery then multiple Volts by Amps

e.g. 10.8V x 8800mAh (which is to 8.8 Amp Hours) = 95Wh

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