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How High Can You Fly a Drone? (Legal and Technical Limits)

One of the most important things you need to know when it comes to flying a drone is that drones can only be flown up to a certain altitude for a couple of reasons. The first reason there is a limit to how high you can fly a drone is that the law specifically states a specified limit. The second limitation can be tied to the technical specifications of a drone. So how high can you fly a drone based on the legal and technical limits?

The legal limit of any drone that is flown in the United States and most other countries is 400 feet above ground level. In terms of technical limitations, a drone’s height limit is determined by its range. Most DJI drones can fly up to 1,640 feet high.

Drones can fly very high, depending on their design. A toy drone won’t reach more than 150 feet.

Different drones tend to have different technical specifications, and that is why they have different limits in terms of how high they can fly. However, regardless of how high drones can fly, the one certain thing that you should know is that the law states that you must limit your drone’s altitude to no more than 400 feet high whether or not it could physically handle higher altitudes.

FAA limitations for how high you can fly

The FAA, or Federal Aviation Administration, has enacted a set of rules to govern the safe operation of drones for recreational and commercial drone pilots. One of the most important rules that you need to follow whenever you are flying your drone has to do with height. Never fly your drone more than 400 feet above ground level.

In short, you can only fly your drone up to 400 feet in the air over your head. This is strictly implemented for recreational drone flying. Only commercial drone pilots may apply for a waiver to exceed that limitation in certain defined situations. More on that later on.

The basis for the 400-feet rule is that most manned aircraft activity usually starts at 500 feet. While airplanes and helicopters start off much closer to the ground during takeoff, that shouldn’t pose a problem for drone operators because drones aren’t allowed to fly near airports anyway.

So, by the time the airplane or helicopter is far away from the airport where drones are allowed to fly, the manned aircraft is supposed to be at least 500 feet in the air at all times.

Meanwhile, the 100-foot difference between 500 feet and 400 feet was put in place to act as a buffer so that any close encounters between any manned aircraft and drones can be avoided.

Just as a side-note, in the UK, the drone limit is 500 feet as they did not put in place a buffer between the limit of a drone’s maximum limit and that of the usual altitude at which most manned aircraft start their activities.

How high can I fly my drone, technically speaking?

Manufacturers design drones to fly in the first layer of the atmosphere or troposphere.

In the troposphere, the higher you go, gases like air decrease in density. So at high tropospheric altitudes, the air pressure is less for the drone.

However, the wind is stronger as the air can move at these altitudes freely. There are no obstacles like mountains or buildings. Also, the temperature decreases abruptly.

The real challenge for manufacturers is for their drones to generate enough lift to maintain the drone stability when facing strong wind gusts and to fly at temperatures near or below 32° F or 0° C.

Most manufacturers design drones to fly up to approximately 20,000 feet or 6,000 meters. At this altitude, temperature and wind conditions are accessible for high-end commercial drones like the DJI Mavic 3.

Does this mean my Mavic 3 can’t go higher?

It can fly higher for sure, but that’s not what the manufacturer has designed the drone to do.

Flying your drone over its max altitude can result in a loss of control. That can potentially harm other people, aircraft, or goods when falling.

» MORE: How High Can You Fly a Drone? (Legal and Technical Limits)

How high can I fly my drone, legally speaking?

On the other hand, we have regulations prohibiting hobbyists or commercial pilots from going above certain altitudes with their drones.

The reason is that a drone can easily hit a larger aircraft in the same airspace. Let’s say you’re flying a drone at 4,000 feet.

The drone can interact with a commercial aircraft descending at that altitude to land at the nearest airport.

If that commercial aircraft engine sucks in your drone, it can get destroyed.

An aircraft without a properly working motor can’t fly, so it will cause a catastrophe when it smashes into the surface.

Aviation authorities defined that flying drones up to a specific altitude was safe to prevent potential accidents. That way, drones and aircraft will have divided airspace.

Special considerations for flying a drone at high altitudes 

Remember here that 400 feet above the ground is what matters here and not the 400 feet that you can see in the drone’s altimeter.

So, if you started 100 feet off the ground when your drone took off because you were on top of a building, the drone will still start at zero feet because its altimeter starts recording at the point of takeoff and not from how high it is. 

As such, you still have to limit yourself to 400 feet from the ground and not from the point of takeoff. This means that your drone only has up to 300 feet of altitude to gain if it took off from 100 feet.

If you’re flying in a mountainous area, you can gain more than 400 feet in altitude from your takeoff point, so long as you always maintain no more than 400 feet above the ground level as your drone ascends a mountain slope.

Just keep in mind that manned aircraft might fudge their limits a bit and buzz closer to a mountain top while passing. Don’t risk a collision, even if you’re within your legal limits. 

However, if you do want to fly over 400 feet, you will need special authorization for that. But this is only the case for commercial drone pilots since they are the ones who are most likely to go over 400 feet, for example when they need to inspect tall buildings using their drones. 

How to make sure you stay below the limits

Even if you do get authorization to fly over 400 feet, most drones nowadays have a built-in limiter to not go over 400 feet. This is not because they physically can’t, but only because their firmware doesn’t allow them to fly over that limit.

Some drones will allow you to disable this limit, but some won’t. In this case, if you want to fly over 400 feet, you may need to use a commercial drone that can do so.

Technology limitations on drone altitude 

Now that we know the legal limits of drone flight, let’s look at how high drones can fly from a technical standpoint. As mentioned, most drones have a built-in limit that prevents them from flying over 400 feet due to the legal limits. However, those are not the actual limits of a drone, because drones without that built-in limit can physically fly over 400 feet.

For the best DJI drones around, it has been recorded that they have a limit of up to 1,640 feet in terms of how high they can fly. That is a pretty high number which probably can only be achieved realistically if you were allowed a special authorization to fly over the 400-feet limit. However, if you were not given that authorization, the limit of any drone regardless of how powerful it may be should be 400 feet only.

However, the record for the highest that a drone was able to fly was about 11,150 feet or roughly 3.4 kilometers from the ground. But the same drone was not able to soar well above the clouds at that altitude. As such, it was suggested that its usual limit should have been around 6,500 feet, which is almost half of the highest altitude it was able to achieve.

But cases such as those are extraordinary. Specifically, they were able to acquire special permits to test out the technical limits of a drone or for research and other studies. In normal cases, no one should even be allowed to fly their drones above 400 feet let alone reach half of the 11,00 feet that this drone was able to reach. 

Still, that was probably an isolated case as most drones should not be able to generate enough lift as they go higher and higher. 

In the cases of drones flying at high altitudes, such as on high mountain peaks, where they are still legally within the limit of 400 feet above ground level, you need to keep in mind that at higher altitudes, the air is thinner, or less dense. This means the drone will have to work harder to generate lift, and will therefore have a shorter flight time than it might otherwise.