How High Can Drones Fly?

Drones feature varying flight altitudes based on various factors, including their model, usage, country of use, and weight.

So, while some drones can fly at a maximum height of 76,000 feet, others can only fly at 33,000 feet or less. Legally speaking, though, how high can drones fly?

In most countries, the legal limit for flying drones is 400 feet. For example, in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restricts drones from flying above 400 feet.

You must obtain a waiver from the Federal Aviation Authorities to fly your plane above the 400-foot limit. The waiver should outline the flight details and the safety measures to be taken. 

In this article, I’ll cover altitude limits based on where you live or want to visit and drones make, among other aspects.

So, keep reading.

Drone Altitude Concept

Altitude in regards to drones is classified into two:

  • Above Sea Level (ASL)
  • Above Ground Level (AGL)

ASL refers to location elevation, while AGL refers to the drone height above the launching zone.

So, since the 400-foot maximum altitude starts at the ground level, if the drone takes off at a building that is 200 feet high, then the altitude limit becomes 200 feet Above Ground Level (AGL).

How High Can Drones Fly?

Some high-end consumer drones can fly above 400 feet; for example, some can fly at 1000 feet or higher.

One such drone is the Zephyr, a solar-powered drone that flew at an altitude of 76,100 feet in 2021 for more than 18 days.

While such powerful drones exist, the FAA requires high-end and low-end drones to maintain a maximum altitude of 400 feet.

The restriction is meant to avert collisions between drones and manned aircraft whose minimum altitude is 500 feet.

However, as a commercial drone pilot with an FAA Part 107 license, you may request a waiver to exceed the 400-foot limit AGL.

This waiver allows commercial pilots to fly their drones above 400 feet when operating from a 400-foot structure during industrial equipment checks and tower inspections, among other activities.

While at it, you need to fully know and understand all relevant laws and regulations that you should comply with when flying a drone above the 400-foot limit.

While the manned aircraft is required to maintain clearance during such events, commercial drone pilots should also have the expertise and skills to navigate their drones to avoid collisions.

On the other hand, a commercial pilot must submit a comprehensive operational flight plan that outlines the possible risks and preventive measures to take.

It may take up to 90 days before the FAA approves the waiver. So, you need to be patient.

What Is the Maximum Flight Height for a Drone at Night?

The maximum flight height for drones at night is still 400 feet.

Similar to day flights, commercial pilots still need FAA waivers to fly beyond 400 feet AGL and must demonstrate a high level of expertise to avoid accidents.

However, all commercial and recreational drones must feature anti-collision lights for visibility by other manned or unmanned vehicles flying at night.

What Is the Maximum Altitude a Drone Can Fly Based on Its Type?

At the beginning of this write-up, I mentioned that the drone model also determines how far a drone can fly.

So, in this section, I’ll discuss the maximum altitude of various drones, including hobbyist, military, toy, commercial, racing, and government drones. Keep reading.

Hobbyist and Recreational Drones

Pilots in this category fly drones for fun or as a hobby. Technically speaking, these drones may fly at 6,000 feet, which could be dangerous.

Consequently, the FAA and state authorities require that recreational drones maintain a maximum height of 400 feet.

So, even when flying from a building that is 300 feet tall, you can only fly at 100 feet AGL.

Military Drones

The highest a military drone can fly depends on its capabilities and size. Generally, military drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), are allowed to fly at low or high altitudes as long as pilots observe the flight rules and safety measures.

So, a military drone can fly at the same altitude as a conventional aircraft.

Hence, based on size, type, and mission, for example, gathering intelligence information and performing strategizing aerial assignments, UAVs can fly at 1,200 to 18,000 feet AGL. UAS’ service ceiling ranges between 50 to 60,000 feet. 

According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), military drones are helpful in undertaking strategic, tactical, and operational activities.

Hence, they’re grouped as follows:

Group 1: Features an altitude of 1,200 feet AGL or more.

Group 2: Features a flight altitude of 3,500 feet AGL and above.

Group 3: Flies at 18,000-foot flight level (FL) or more.

Group 4: Equally flies at 18,000-foot FL or higher

Group 5: Flies at 18,000-foot FL or higher

Toy Drones

Generally meant for kids and beginner pilots, toy drones may only fly at 66 to 150 feet. The FAA equally regulates them, so safety measures must be observed.

Commercial Drones

As aforementioned, commercial drones can exceed the 400 feet altitude limit given that they have requested a waiver from the FAA.

Caution must always be applied while undertaking commercial tasks such as photography, videography, and survey jobs.

Racing Drones

The maximum altitude for racing drones is 200 feet AGL. This low altitude is meant to ensure that pilots can see the drones and be able to control them effectively to avoid collisions during races.

Government drones

The government uses drones for surveillance, crowd monitoring during events, and search and rescue missions. Hence, these drones are powerful enough to fly at 11,200 feet AGL.

However, government officials should ensure that humanity and animals are safe when operating their drones.

What Is the Possible Risk of Flying a Drone Too High?

Don’t exceed the 400-foot altitude limit if you don’t have a waiver. This restriction aims to prevent drone collisions with helicopters and planes that fly at 500 feet or higher.

Besides, successfully controlling and clearly seeing your drone above 400 feet is difficult.

So, as a recreational drone pilot, you could be subject to hefty fines, sanctions, imprisonment, or drone confiscation for exceeding the 400 maximum altitude.

The same applies if you exceed the 400-foot limit but fail to adhere to the rules or observe all the necessary safety measures. 

Conclusion

Legally speaking, drones should maintain a maximum altitude of 400 feet AGL. Most civil aviation authorities restrict drones from flying above this height to avoid collisions between drones and helicopters.

So, failure to adhere to these rules could land you in problems; for example, you could be jailed or fined, or your drone could be confiscated.

It’s paramount, therefore, to maintain this flight altitude limit at night and during the day.

However, commercial drone pilots may request a waiver whenever they want to fly their drones beyond the 400-foot AGL.

Even so, you must observe all the safety measures and demonstrate the highest expertise during such flights to ensure no accidents are reported.

Author
Peter Karanja

Peter is a licensed drone pilot and drone fanatic. He owns a DJI Air 2S that he uses to shoot videos for fun, enjoyment and for clients.

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