How High Can Drones Fly?

By Nidhi Nangia. Updated: June 18, 2018
How High Can Drones Fly?

A drone is an unpiloted aircraft which is one of the most advanced devices in robotics. It has been incorporated into the military for both surveillance and attack purposes. While praised for protecting soldiers on the ground, it is also a very controversial weapon of war which has seen dire consequences after bombing campaigns[1]. As the technology developed, drones rapidly became more commonplace among civilians. They are marketed as, essentially, toys and even kids can be seen using them with greater frequency. However, as with all technology, there are different varieties available. Whether your love them or see them as one step closer to 1984, you may be wondering how high can drones fly? oneHOWTO answers by taking into consideration the different factors of drone flight.

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Distance is equal to speed multiplied by time and how high your drone can fly largely depends on this formula. Speed refers to the speed at which your drone can fly. While we are looking into the maximum range of the device, we are more concerned about its horizontal speed here. For popular drones in the market, such as the Yuneec Typhoon 4K and Breeze, it can be around 5-8 m/s. For more advanced gadgets like the DJI Spark or DJI Phantom 4, it can be as high as 13-20 m/s.

The make of the drone is important. More advanced (and more expensive models) can reach altitudes of over 1600 ft. However, the circumstances required to reach this point need to take in many factors. These we will go into below, showing that some are issues are practical, some are jurisdictional.

Battery life

How high a drone can fly also depends on the length of time it can stay in flight. Drones come with batteries that have a limited flight time. The battery life of a drone varies from one model to another. For instance, Yuneec Breeze can fly for around 12 minutes, while Yuneec Typhoon 4K can keep flying for as long as 25 minutes. DJI Spark and DJI Phantom 4 also claim an impressive flight time of 16 to 28 minutes. Considering these values, a Yuneec Breeze can fly up to 3 km, while a DJI Phantom 4 can fly up to 33 km.

However, you need to keep in mind that you fly only half of the drone’s maximum altitude capacity, because it will need battery to cover the same distance on its return journey. However, don’t gamble on maintaining the remaining 50% battery. Many things may go wrong on its return trip, such as communication problems, strong winds, etc. Planning to exhaust 100% of your drone’s battery can be risky, as your drone may not be able to complete its trip and it may also be damaging to the battery itself.

Transmitter range

If you are trying to get the maximum distance out of your drone, then you will be in need of a radio controller that can provide extraordinary range. The transmitter that came with your drone must have a frequency band of 2.4 GHz. It is good enough to operate your drone up to 1.5 km only. However, there are a few modifications that can be implemented to maximize the range of the radio controller. Some of them are:

  • Go for low frequency radio waves that can travel through objects, also good for longer distances.
  • You can connect a UHF device to your RC transmitter which can modify the operating frequency of your gadget. Reducing the frequency by only 1.2 GHz can extend the control range of your device by as much as 10 km.
  • Many drones have a failsafe switch which don't allow the drone to move past the range of its transmitter. If it reaches an altitude out of range, it will bring it back automatically. Turning this off can make it go further, but you will likely lose control of the drone.
  • Another way to increase the range of your controller is to remove the stock antennae and replace them with the ones that have higher gain and more power. Upgrading a 2dB antenna with a 4-5 dB antenna will run the device with almost double its power. This successfully increases the transmitter range by as much as 30-50%.
  • You may also increase the range by connecting a power booster with your RC controller.
  • If you are really serious about extending your controller’s range and you don’t mind investing some hefty cash for this purpose, then consider having a ground station made of an array of high-powered antenna. Such antennae may increase its range up to 11 dB. This is an expensive investment to make, but the boost you give to your RC controller range is considerable.

FPV flight

The higher you fly your drone the further from sight it will become. For this, you will need reliable FPV (first-person view) flight technology. This technology will allow you to control your gadget even when you are not able to see it. The experience of FPV flying is totally immersive and is one of the reasons people fly drones.

How High Can Drones Fly? - FPV flight

Legal obligations

Since a drone is a tool used by the military, they set legal restrictions so that your drone does not interfere with their operations. Breaking these laws can place you in big legal trouble. Here are a few things that you need to keep in mind:

  • As discussed earlier, flying for over 1 mile means that you would be flying your drone beyond your range of sight. While this is a fun experience, many countries prohibit this practice. So, before you venture into a long-distance flight, make sure to check your regional restrictions on drone flight.
  • You can increase your RC controller’s range by lowering its operational frequency band. But despite being a reliable and easy method, make sure that the frequency you are reducing is legally allowed for public access. Certain frequencies are dedicated to the army and air control only. Entering this frequency can cause interference with their communication systems. Find out the frequency dedicated to military in your area, otherwise you may unknowingly land up in an unwanted legal trouble.
  • There are certain areas where flying a drone is prohibited, such as near an airport, near a sensitive installation like a communication tower, etc. You need to keep this in mind, especially if you are operating a long-distance drone flight.

The bottom line is that you can get into legal trouble by flying your drone outside of the law's guidelines. If you do this, you may end up paying a hefty fine or even risking the confiscation of your expensive drone.

FAA regulations

If you are flying a drone, you need to follow the regulations set by the FAA or other such competent authority. Although FAA controlled space in the air refers only to a radius of 5 miles from airports, technically all space in the air from the ground comes under FAA regulations. Most drone manufacturers will set their gadget to the limitations set by FAA on commercial space altitude. FAA also prohibits any flying beyond the visual sight, which means that you need to be extra careful if you are planning to fly too high and far. If you are flying your drone using FPV technology, you need to keep it monitored with the help of an observer. Although the rules may vary from one country to the other, it is important to check your local laws. Modern day drones are very powerful and can reach great heights, but you need to keep them within legal limitations.

Words of Caution

Although advanced drones can cover several miles in height, you should not push its limits. Try to fly your drone in an open space only, as barriers like cliff walls and trees can interfere with its radio signals and delay radio transmission. You should also monitor your drone by installing a GPS tracker on it. Some drones come with in-built GPS, but it functions only on its battery. Also make sure that your drone does not hurt people even if it crashes. Don’t fly it near heavily populated areas, or in places where it is prohibited.

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