A drone is technically referred to as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Any unmanned aircraft or spacecraft which may be controlled by a radio transmitter or a mobile device is considered a drone. But just how high can a drone fly?
While drones have only become popular for personal and commercial use, they have been around for more than a century. The first known unmanned aerial vehicle was launched in 1839, during the attack on the city of Venice by Austrian soldiers. These were unmanned balloons filled with explosives.
How High Can A Drone Fly?
The height a drone can fly depends on the type of drone you are flying. If we're talking about altitude in terms of physical limitations, the high-flying drones can reach up to about 5,000 meters. Anything beyond this height can cause the reduced air density to affect the drone's propellers.
Other models have lower capabilities when it comes to altitude, depending on the model and manufacturer specifications. There are also regulations and restrictions set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on how high can a drone fly for recreational or commercial use. This covers drones that are used for aerial photography and videography or for roof inspections, surveying and mapping, agriculture, aerial remote sensing, product delivery, and modeling tasks.
What Are The Different Types Of Drones?
To gain a better understanding of how high can a drone fly in terms of physical limitations and limitations in altitude, let's take a look at the different types of drones.
Military drones are also called UAVs or Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS). They are typically used in situations where manning a flight can be dangerous or difficult. Military drones serve as surveillance tools 24/7 with each UAV capable of staying in the air for up to 17 hours at a time to send back real-time images of activity. The United States Air Force makes use of a wide range of drones, from small intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance craft to medium-sized ones as well as large spy planes. How high can a drone fly in military terms? It would be safe to say that the sky's the limit.
Some drones that the US Air Force have used in the past include:
1. MQ-1B Predator
The MQ-1B Predator (formerly known as the RQ-1 Predator) was initially designed for surveillance, reconnaissance, gathering intelligence and identifying targets. It has been equipped with two Hellfire II missiles since 2002, can run at speeds up to 135 miles per hour, and is capable of striking at a range of up to 5 miles. The Predator can go up to an altitude of 10,000 feet and still identify the infrared signature of a human body.
2. MQ-9 Reaper
The MQ-9 Reaper is capable of carrying 4 Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs (Paveway II and GBU-12) and can cruise at a speed of 194 miles per hour. The Reaper can fly up to an altitude of 50,000 feet.
3. Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk
The Northrop Grumann RQ-4 Global Hawk is capable of flying up to an altitude of 65,000 feet and can stay aloft for 35 hours.
Space-borne drones are unpiloted aircraft or spacecraft which include cargo spacecraft, and satellites. Technically, space drones are not classified as drones because they operate beyond the earth's atmosphere; so for space-borne drones, "how high can a drone fly" is really an irrelevant question. The best example of a space UAV is the X-37B which resembles the space shuttle as a miniature version.
The limited use of commercial drones has been allowed since 2016. Construction work, agriculture, public safety, aerial photography, and videography are some industries that have been using commercial drones.
Popular high-altitude commercial drones being sold in the market include:
1. DJI Phantom 4 Pro
The DJI Phantom 4 Pro is considered one of the best drones in the market. It can climb up to an altitude of 19,685 feet, contains 5-directional obstacle sensing tech, and a high-quality camera that takes videos at 120 frames per second. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro is ideal for aerial photography and for taking photos of a construction site. This drone is also very stable in almost any weather condition.
2. Autel X-Star Premium
The Autel X-Star Premium gives the best value for money when it comes to camera drones. It contains a 4K camera and an Ultra HD video which can display an HD live view from up to 1.2 miles away to your mobile device. This drone is capable of getting up to an altitude of 3,280 feet without compromising stability and can provide 25 minutes of flight time.
3. Yuneec Typhoon H
The Yuneec Typhoon H has an operating range of 2,624 feet but can go up to 3,280 feet. It has a 4K camera and is capable of taking slow-motion footage at 120 frames per second.
4. Hubsan X4 H502S
For those on a tight budget, the Hubsan X4 H502S still proves to be one of the best high altitude drones. It has a 720p camera that can be used for both photography and videography and streams live to a 4.3-inch display which is built into the controller. This makes the Hubsan a handy tool for roof inspection jobs. It also provides 20 minutes of flight time.
5. Ionic Stratus
The Ionic Stratus is a low-end, high-altitude drone that has a wide range of features and can reach an altitude of up to 262 feet. Unlike the other drones mentioned here, the Ionic Stratus does not come with a built-in camera (you need to purchase a GoPro separately and attach it to the drone). The Ionic Stratus is considerably stable and has a one-button 3D roll function.
Recreational drones are used mainly for enjoyment, personal interests, and hobbies. Some top-rated recreational drones include:
DJI Mavic Air
The DJI Mavic Air is a foldable drone that can easily fit in your backpack or jacket pocket. It has a camera resolution of 12MP, is capable of capturing 4K video at 60 frames per second, and a battery life of 21 minutes. This drone is capable of tracking moving objects and taking spherical video.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro is also foldable, with a camera resolution of 20MP. However, it's incapable of shooting 4K at 60 frames per second.
The DJI Spark is ultra-light and has controller-free gesture controls and automatic quick shot modes. This drone can be controlled using your smartphone. However, being so lightweight affects its stability when in flight.
DJI Phantom 4
The DJI Phantom 4 has a sturdy construction, object-avoidance technology, and a dedicated remote control that connects to a smartphone app. It has a camera resolution of 12.4 MP and stable 4K video recording capabilities. The only issue is battery life (which is around 15 to 20 minutes).
Parrot Bebop 2
The Parrot Bebop 2 is a mid-range drone with a wide range of features like shake-free video recording, 14MP camera resolution, a fisheye lens, and stabilization software. However, battery life is relatively short so it would be worth getting a spare.
Other FAA Regulations On The Use Of Commercial And Recreational Drones
Besides the 400-feet maximum altitude regulation, there are other rules set by the FAA regarding the legal and safe use of drones.
1. Maintaining A Visual Line Of Sight
This means steering clear of obstacles such as trees or buildings that can obstruct your view. There should be at least one person keeping an eye on the drone while another one is focusing on the camera feed.
2. No Flying Over People And Vehicles
This rule is pretty straightforward. Drones can lose battery power or break while in flight and may cause accidents which can seriously injure people or damage vehicles. Drones are also not allowed to fly over stadiums and large public gatherings.
3. No Flying At Night And During Inclement Weather
Drones are only allowed to fly during the daytime. This also means that they can only be in flight from 30 minutes before sunrise and to 30 minutes before sunset.
4. New Regulations
As of May 2019, new FAA rules have also been set for recreational drone flyers due to an increase in the number of recreational drone users as well as incidents of drone-related accidents.
This new law states that recreational drone pilots are no longer allowed to fly drones in any controlled airspace. Controlled airspace refers to airspace where manned aircraft fly and operate as well as regions surrounding airports. Additional restrictions were also designated for national security and safety.
However, this law may be short-lived as the FAA is set to expand the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) on July 23, 2019 to include recreational drone flyers. The LAANC is part of the collaborative efforts made between the FAA and private industries. The LAANC “directly supports UAS integration into the airspace” and “provides access to controlled airspace near airports through near real-time processing of airspace authorizations below approved altitudes in controlled airspace,” according to FAA.gov.
Application and approval for airspace authorizations are automated by the LAANC through applications developed by UAS Service Suppliers (USS) that are approved by the FAA. The LAANC is available at approximately 400 air traffic facilities in 600 airports.
The new law now requires recreational pilots to pass a flight exam. The exam is designed to ensure that the person operating a drone can demonstrate a clear understanding of aeronautical safety knowledge and awareness of FAA regulations and requirements that pertain to the operation of an unmanned aircraft in the national airspace system.
In discussing the matter of how high can a drone fly, we've tackled two very important aspects: the physical maximum altitude limitations of drones and the maximum altitude allowed by FAA regulations for commercial and recreational drones.
These regulations are in place for a reason: to ensure individual safety as well as national security, especially in controlled airspaces. Flying a drone is just like flying a plane so always adhere to these rules whenever you have a drone in flight.