Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), have become very popular with hobbyists and professionals. They are also easily available and used for many different purposes, like aerial photography, film-making, construction, roof inspections, etc. The flight range and altitude of a drone tells you how far and how high it can fly. But besides technical capabilities, how high can a drone fly also depends on national and local regulations.
Most countries and local jurisdictions set a limit to how high can a drone fly to keep them from endangering aviation as well as the public. There are also limits to fight range, which specify that drones can only be operated within the line of sight of the person controlling its flight. The rules for military drones are quite different, but this article refers only to civilian drone flights for recreational purposes. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 sets out rules for various kinds of drone use in the US.
How High Can a Drone Fly?
High altitude drones are now widely available for hobbyists and for professional use. They can be used by architects, real estate agents and even wildlife photographers to take pictures at locations that are inaccessible except by air. Many films have also used drones for aerial shots. In the construction industry, drones are used for monitoring, mapping and modeling. For all of these purposes, it's important to know the flight range, which is the distance the UAV can fly, as well the maximum altitude it can reach.
Technical and Legal Issues
When it comes to the question of how high can a drone fly, there are two factors that must be kept in mind. The first is the technical capability of the drone, and the second factor is the law regarding the maximum height at which it can be flown in a particular locality. Most countries and local authorities have regulations about the maximum altitude to prevent interference with aviation, and also to keep the population on the ground safe in case of accidents.
As of 2018, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has rolled out new rules for drone operators in the US in various categories. The different categories of drone operators are:
- 1Recreational flyers and modeler community-based organizations
- 2Certified remote pilots including commercial operators
- 3Public safety and government users
- 4Educational users
Some of these rules are applicable immediately while others will be implemented over time. Some of the most important rules for recreational drone fliers are listed below, and you can find the complete regulations at the Federal Register.
For a number of reasons, most countries limit the maximum altitude at which drones can be flown without a waiver. This is to protect aviation, and also the population in case the drone crashes to the ground. In the US, the maximum height to which you can fly a drone is 400 feet. In Europe, the limit is 500 feet.
Even drones that have the technical capability to fly higher must follow these limits. Besides height, there are also legal restrictions on the range or distance to which a drone can be flown from the person who is controlling it. Further, the FAA defines some categories of airspace as restricted, and these are closed to drone flights.
Technical Capabilities of High Altitude Drones
Drone technology has progressed rapidly and put advanced designs in the hands of drone hobbyists and enthusiasts as well as professionals. Booming demand has made it possible for manufacturers to make lightweight drones available at low cost. Most drones are equipped with a camera or live feed and others can have cameras attached.
Drones are stable as well as lightweight, which makes them preferable to human cameramen in a plane or helicopter for aerial photography. Powerful, lightweight motors allow the drones to gain height quickly and then maintain it. Most drones are quadcopters with four propellers and are controlled by radio transmitters. More recent models can be controlled by mobile devices via WiFi. The highest a drone has been flown is 11,000 feet. However, in most countries, the legal limit to how high can a drone fly is far lower than this.
New FAA Regulations for Recreational Drone Flyers
As of January 3, 2018, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has introduced new regulations for flying drones in the US. The purpose of these rules is to ensure that airspace remains safe and accessible for everyone. These rules have become necessary because there have been incidents when drones were flown too close to civilian aircraft and even collided with them.
One of the most significant changes brought about by the new law is that all recreational drones must be registered and marked clearly on the outside with the registration number. The drone operator must carry proof of registration while flying the craft. The law also specifies how high can a drone fly in different categories of airspace. This is necessary to keep your drone clear of other civilian and military aircraft.
FAA Rules for Drones in Different Categories of Airspace
You can use the mobile app that controls your drone, or other drone mobile apps, to tell you what category of airspace you are operating in. You can also find detailed airspace maps at the FAA website.
For uncontrolled or “Class G” airspace, where the FAA does not control manned air traffic, the maximum height for drones is 400 feet. Drones cannot be flown in controlled airspace without proper authorization. There are also fixed sites for drones which have their own altitude limits that must be observed.
FAA Airspace Restrictions
It is the drone operator's responsibility to be aware of all airspace restrictions, including temporary restrictions. Restricted areas can include airspace over stadiums and sporting events, near airports, security sensitive areas, restricted and special use airspace, and over Washington DC.
Drones are also prohibited from flying over any emergency or rescue operations such as accidents, law enforcement actions, wildfires and hurricanes.
Other Safety Rules for Drone Operators
Drones must be flown within the line of sight of the operator or another observer who is in direct communication with the operator. They must never be operated under the influence of alcohol or in a careless and reckless manner. Violation of any of these requirements and safety measures can result in civil and/or criminal penalties.
Some common sense safety rules include not flying drones near buildings, people and cars, or in wild weather when it becomes difficult or impossible to control the craft. The new law will eventually require operators to pass an online aeronautical knowledge and safety test and to carry proof of passing the test when operating a drone. This and other new regulations will be implemented in an incremental fashion over time.
What Are Some of the Best High-Altitude Drones?
Technically, there are many drone models that are capable of achieving high altitudes while maintaining a stable flight path. Keep in mind that while some models can achieve heights of up to nearly 20,000 feet, in the US they are limited to an altitude of 400 feet without a waiver. Besides the maximum height achieved, other factors to consider are how stable a drone is at high altitudes as well as camera quality. The various models come in a range of prices to suit different budgets.
Altair Outlaw SE Drone
This craft can achieve a maximum height of 600 meters (around 1968 feet) and has other features like GPS flight mode, follow-me mode and a return home function. It's a good choice for drone enthusiasts on a budget.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro
Autel X-Star Premium
With a maximum height of around 1000 meters (around 3280 feet) and a high-definition camera, this is one of the best drones in terms of value for money.
Yuneec Typhoon H
This drone also has a maximum height of 1000 meters, but its unique feature is a camera that can capture slow-motion footage. This model is a good choice for beginners.
Other low-cost models that are suitable for beginners are the Hubsan X4 H502S and the Ionic Stratus. These are not equipped with a camera, but a separate camera like a GoPro can be attached.
Drones have quickly become popular with hobbyists as well as professionals in various fields. Their technical capabilities have also grown rapidly. When determining how high can a drone fly, operators should keep in mind not only the maximum height they can each but also the FAA regulations governing drone flights.
There are a number of different models that can reach heights varying from a few hundred feet to nearly 20,000 feet. With varying prices and features, there are modes suitable for all enthusiasts from beginners to seasoned professionals.