How High Can A Drone Fly Legally?

Drones have become so common that we often take them for granted. Also known as quadcopters, drones represent the closest that the larger majority of people will ever get to personal flight. You will also be amazed at just how capable these fantastic devices have gotten. Today’s best consumer drones can comfortably stay airborne for the better part of an hour and pilot themselves to some extent in the meantime.

But just how high can a drone fly? And for that matter, can you fly yours to whatever height it’s capable of attaining? Let’s look at the various restrictions that govern drone flight with regards to height.

Read More – How Far Can A Drone Fly?

A Word of Caution

Before proceeding any further, we must clarify that this guide is strictly meant for general informational purposes. The information contained therein *does not* constitute legal advice –nor is it intended to do so in any way.

We strongly discourage drone pilots and other readers from acting solely on the basis of any information, views or opinions expressed in this article. And while we endeavor to keep the guide accurate, it would be in your best interest to consult an attorney in your jurisdiction before placing any reliance on the same.

What Is The Altitude Limit Of A Drone Flight?

There’s a legally-mandated altitude cap that all drone pilots are required to observe. The US Federal Aviation Administration specifies this ceiling as 400 feet, or 121 meters above ground level (400′ AGL in short). Because the restriction has been adopted in quite a few jurisdictions around the world, most quadcopters are programmed to stay within 400 feet of the ground directly below. Basically, your unit will use its GPS module and altimeter to keep you from flying higher. Also note that the 400-foot limit isn’t absolute; you’re only allowed to fly as high as you can keep the drone within visual range.

What Is Controlled Airspace?

Controlled airspace is any part of the air within which traffic received ATC (air traffic control) services, and is required to adhere to certain regulations. Once again, we must clarify that even ‘uncontrolled’ airspace is still governed — you’re not exactly free to do as you please.

But in the context of flying, controlled airspace refers to the five categories of airspace (Classes A through E) that are designated as having high traffic volumes. Flights in these airspaces are actively monitored by ATC, and save for a few exceptions, any aircraft that plans to venture into controlled airspace must obtain clearance beforehand.

What If You Fly A Drone Above 400 Feet Maximum Altitude?

Much like speed limits for road traffic, the 400-foot limit was imposed for safety purposes. Specifically, it’s meant to prevent dangerous encounters between drones and manned aircraft (passenger airliners, helicopters etc). The latter generally keep above 500 feet. By maintaining a 100-foot gap between the two, the likelihood of straying into each other’s territory is greatly reduced.

This should partly explain what would happen if you flew your craft above 400 feet. According to the FAA, drone pilots can “endanger other aircraft and people/property when flying recklessly, or in disregard of risk.” Granted, the chances of running into traffic in the vast airspace beyond 400 feet are relatively low. Even so, you cannot entirely discount that possibility. And the potential consequences of crashing into manned traffic can be devastating, to say the least. It is safe to say that no quadcopter pilot would wish to contribute to a tragedy of that scale.

Not to forget that flying above 400′ AGL immediately puts you in breach of the law. FAA cautions flyers who fail to observe safety requirements that they could be liable for civil and/or criminal penalties; ditto for violators in other jurisdictions. Now, unlike their road counterparts, aviation authorities don’t have a way of enforcing the 400-foot limit as yet; there are no radar traps or anything like that. But that doesn’t mean you cannot get caught.

If someone flying a regular plane spots your drone — or, god forbid, you get into a close encounter — you can bet that the authorities will be notified. And that they (authorities) will use all means to identify who was behind the controls of the offending craft. In the end, you could find yourself facing a steep fine, jail term or even both for a reckless and pointless infraction.

Is It Physically Possible for Drones to Fly Above 400 Feet?

Well, that depends on the kind of drone in question. And whether you can circumvent the unit’s altitude-enforcing mechanism — most units have this feature built-in on a firmware level, as we highlighted earlier. If you attempt to fly above 400 feet, the device will simply refuse to climb and just hover in place.

But in terms of sheer physical capability, a good number of drones are actually capable of flying much higher than the law permits. There are units that can soar 1,000 feet above ground and beyond, with one particular model reportedly capable of climbing 3 times as high (3,200 feet).

So yeah: It’s possible that your quad’ could be able to fly above 400 feet if you can get around the firmware restrictions. But as noted earlier, not all models are equally capable. Drones that aren’t equipped with GPS radios are usually limited to within 80-100 feet of the remote control. Even the more-advanced units have some limiting factors too:

  • Battery life: How high you can go will depend on how much juice your battery can provide.
  • Lift: There’s a certain point above which the air gets too thin for the rotors on your quad to generate lift.
  • Wind speed: Unlike a heavier aircraft, your drone isn’t built to handle the jetstream.

Do Drones Have Systems Built in to Not Go Above 400 Feet?

Yes, most drones on the market have such mechanisms, as we’ve pointed out a couple of times. And in most cases, the limitation is baked right into the unit’s firmware. That means you will have to ‘hack’ your device if you want to get rid of the restriction.

Do keep in mind that circumventing the 400-foot limit will most likely void your unit’s warranty. You will be prompted to confirm that you accept all the responsibilities arising from the change. In other words, you’ll be totally on your own henceforth.

Wrapping Up

Testing the altitude limits of your quadcopter can be a lot of fun, especially given how far the technology has evolved over the years. In practice, though, this might not be the most prudent idea. Flying higher than 400 feet elevates the risk of interfering with manned traffic. Not to forget the issues you will face at higher altitudes: strong winds, weak lift, and the risk of losing control entirely.

Ultimately, drone pilots owe it to themselves to adhere to the laid-down rules, especially when one is in controlled airspace. The last thing anyone wants is for harsher restrictions to be imposed as a result of a few unnecessary violations.

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