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Long Range Drones: Ultimate Guide

A long-range drone is essential to capture the beauty of this world from above across vast distances. So many factors can influence a drone’s long-range capabilities.

This ultimate guide to flying long-range drones answers all your related questions, so let’s get started!

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What to look for in a long-range drone

When buying a long-range drone, you must consider a few critical characteristics to fly without issues.

  • Transmission system: This is the most crucial component of a drone that will transmit the video back to the pilot and may receive radio input from the remote controller.

    The maximum transmission range depends on the manufacturer and the quality of the unit.
  • Battery life: This is another essential factor in deciding how far you can fly the drone. It doesn’t matter if your transmission system is excellent; you cannot fly far if your drone’s battery life is poor.

    Remember that you must also return the drone with energy to spare when flying long-range.
  • The drone’s size and weight: These factors indirectly affect how far a drone can fly. Although they’re designed for optimal flights considering their weight, windy conditions can affect drones during long-range flights.

    Typically, heavier drones with smaller sizes tend to do better in higher winds.
  • Motor power: Unless it’s an FPV drone, we don’t know much about the thrust of the motors, their power, and their characteristics.

    That’s why we must look at the maximum flight speed of the drone (the faster the drone, the more robust the motors with higher thrust).
  • The drone’s aerodynamics: This is a crucial characteristic that directly impacts the ability of a drone to fly long-range.

    I will make two comparisons: DJI Avata and the DJI FPV drone. 

    Avata has duct guards and an adequate transmission system for long-range flights; it’s difficult to fly it far, particularly in windier conditions.

    The DJI FPV drone has unique aerodynamics; its body is small in form factor and heavy, so it’s an excellent long-range drone to fly across mountains and in high wind speeds.
  • Firmware limitations: In Europe, China, and Japan, the transmission power is limited by drone manufacturers due to current regulations, whereas in the US, there are fewer restrictions.

    Moreover, geolocation restrictions and altitude height limits are other aspects we must consider.

    That is why custom FPV drones may not have any restrictions regarding VTX power output, altitude limit, and geofencing. Still, you must fly at your own risk outside recommended parameters.

» MORE: 21 Best Long-Range Drones

What features should a long-range drone have?

Here are some essential features that contribute to long-range flights.

  • GPS Return-to-Home feature (failsafe): When flying long-range drones, you’re likelier to lose signal. You must know how to proceed if the video or radio link is interrupted.

    One crucial factor is for the drone to initiate an auto return-to-home based on GPS positioning. This way, you won’t lose your drone.
  • Real-time flight data: We have to continuously monitor the strength of the video or radio signal to the drone and the number of satellites locked onto the drone’s position.

    Most drones already come with these features, but some custom FPV drones may lack them.

    We need to be aware of and monitor all the drone data, including the battery life and remaining flight time, if this is displayed.
  • Live display: When flying a drone long-range, we have a live transmission to our mobile phone or tablet for standard GPS drones or into the goggles for FPV drones.

    We must be able to observe any detail on the screen when flying the drone, and for this to be well-lit.

    I always prefer to fly long-range with my iPad connected to the drone instead of a mobile phone and with the goggles on with my FPV drones.
  • Auto RTH on low battery: We constantly get distracted by the beauty of nature and landscapes we see through the drone’s eyes, and in many scenarios, when flying long-range, this can cost us the drone.

    When low on power and with advanced calculations, the drone should either warn us or perform an automatic return based on the battery level.
  • Last drone location: In worst-case scenarios where we lose telemetry to the drone or the drone cannot get back safely due to the battery level and decides it’s time to land, we must proceed with rescuing the drone.

    That’s why it’s crucial to have a system where you can always see the latest drone position before going blind. 

How far am I allowed to fly a drone legally?

You can only legally fly a drone within your visible line of sight in many countries and territories.

What does that mean?

If you look at the sky and see your drone, that’s all good. But if the drone is not visible anymore, continuing to fly goes against some drone laws and regulations.

There could be circumstances where you can fly beyond VLOS, but that’s rare.

The larger and brighter the drone (e.g., a bright orange as in Autel drones), the more visible it is in the sky. 

If you fly an FPV drone with goggles on, you must have another person called a spotter. In this scenario, the spotter is responsible for monitoring the drone position and communicating with you, ensuring it remains visible.

If you want to fly beyond the visible line of sight as a commercial drone pilot in the US, you must apply for a Part 107 waiver. 

» MORE: Do I Have to Keep My Drone in Sight at All Times?

Do range extenders actually work?

There are many types of drone extenders, from reflectors that focus the signal into one arc direction rather than in a 360-degree angle to additional or replaceable antennas on some remote controllers.

Generally, range extenders work, but they won’t make a massive difference in extending the signal.

As a rule of thumb, drone range extenders may extend between 20 and 50 percent of the transmission range of the drone.

Beware that some extenders may work the opposite, especially the cheap ones. They can even reduce the range of the drone.

Range extenders, as mentioned, can be for the remote controller, but also they can be for goggles in the case of FPV drones.

The range extenders may work better in these scenarios than the FPV goggles’ stock antennas. 

Will the drone return to home on a low battery?

When the drone is getting low on battery, nearly all drones with a GPS module should either perform an automatic return-to-home function or warn you that it is time to return the drone. 

Almost all DJI drones have this function.

However, you should never fly your drone to the point that this function has to be forcefully activated to save it because there could be circumstances where it may not be able to get back to you (e.g., high wind speeds).

Never cancel an automatic return-to-home based on low battery triggers.

Will the drone return to home if the battery discharges?

If your drone initiated an auto return to home function when it got on low battery and, for instance, while the drone was flying back home toward the wind, there’s a high chance your drone won’t make it.

The battery will discharge up to five or 10 percent, and the drone will decide to autoland regardless of position. 

If the drone cannot return home due to discharged battery and your drone is above water, then with sadness, you may have lost your drone.

But if it’s above land, you should be able to find its latest position from your RC maps and safely recover it.

However, there is no safety barrier to the battery level of custom FPV drones.

It will drain the battery (except for Avata and DJI FPV) until it falls out of the sky, even if it has a GPS module where it will return to you (or you manually bring it back).

In this situation, the battery cells will be damaged from the extreme current drain.

Can drones return to home if they lose signal?

Following the same function as standard GPS drones with a return to home on low battery, the same thing happens if you lose signal to the drone.

This will apply to a lost radio connection with the remote controller or the live image feed, but your video feed will most likely go out first, far ahead of the RC radio link. 

In this situation, your drone should ascend to the altitude you have set on your return to home function and start flying toward you.

If you receive your video link back, you can interrupt the process or let it come back home by itself. 

However, if your drone does not have enough satellites locked, it may not be able to return home.

Does the remote controller matter for long-range drones?

In this scenario, we will discuss two types of drones: standard GPS and FPV.

Standard GPS drones will send a video feed to the remote controller that is decoded via the app on the connected screen device.

The remote controller will send a radio transmission back to the drone, received by the same module. The remote controller would extend the video link and radio signal range in this scenario. 

For instance, let’s consider the DJI Mavic 3 Pro, a fantastic long-range drone, and the DJI RC-N1, the standard remote controller.

This will have an inferior transmission range, both video and pilot input on the remote controller, compared to the DJI RC Pro, the professional version with a screen.

FPV drones, except for the DJI FPV and Avata, will use the same technique, where the VTX module will transmit video to the goggles and receive radio input from the pilot. Most FPV drones will have separate links.

The video module will be responsible only for sending low-latency live feedback to the goggles.

In contrast, a separate radio module will be installed on the drone to receive radio input from the pilot.

In this scenario, it all depends on the quality of the remote controller and radio receiver and the protocol used to have long-range radio transmission.

What can fail first in long-range drones? Video or radio signal?

With standard GPS drones, it will always be the video signal to go out first if you get your drone out of range. If the drone is behind enormous obstacles, there’s a chance for both to go out simultaneously.

I always had problems with lagging video transmission on long-range flights, whereas the radio transmission always remained strong.

As for FPV drones, the same applies in the above scenario.

If you have an excellent digital VTX that is made for long-range but a poor D8 radio receiver module on the drone (plus a cheap radio), then chances are you will see your drone falling from the sky with no radio response when flying long-range.

It is imperative to ensure the video module, radio receiver, and transmitter are top quality and work on protocols supporting long-range transmissions.

Can drones return to home if the remote controller battery depletes?

When you take off to fly long-range, the drone will attempt to lock in satellites for multiple functions, including return to home. The drone also updates the home point to the takeoff location.

This means the drone will not depend on the remote controller to return to you because it will not return to the controller but to the takeoff location, aka the home point.

That means if your drone is far away and your remote controller battery dies, the drone (depending on the model) should initiate an auto return to home, like when it goes out of range.

The quality and safety of this return to home will depend on the drone, how many satellites it has locked, the return altitude, and other intelligent functions.

However, this may not be guaranteed if the set RTH altitude is below the highest point between the drone and you unless your drone has advanced return-to-home features, as seen in the DJI Mavic 3 series.

Does cold weather impact long-range drones?

While most drones do just fine when flying at the freezing point (0 degrees Celsius/32 degrees Fahrenheit), most will struggle to fly within normal parameters below the freezing point.

Almost all drones are affected by cold weather, particularly the lithium batteries.

A LiPo battery (which most drones use) will drain much quicker in cold weather, resulting in short flight times. In some circumstances, the flight time can be reduced by more than 50 percent.

However, it all depends on the drone, the battery capacity, its quality, intelligent features, and if you warm it up before the flight, etc. 

So if you are on a trip into the Alps and intend to fly your drone long-range, just consider this factor.

What are the uses of long-range drones?

There are endless scenarios in which you can use a long-range drone.

I will give you a personal example. I tend to fly in the mountains with my long-range FPV and non-FPV drones to dive ridges and film astonishing landscapes.

There are endless locations on this planet where only a pilot with fantastic long-range drones can get the best shots of the area.

More and more drones are being used for enterprise scenarios, such as search and rescue, where these drones must reach incredible distances and stay in the air for as long as possible.

This is another exceptional application of long-range drones.

How to prevent a drone from flying out of range

The only thing you need to do is to ensure that your video and RC transmission display remain strong. 

If the signal decreases, even to the halfway point, it’s time to consider returning the drone so you will not fly out of range.

In most scenarios, the video and radio links, even when halved, should let you fly even farther.

Still, you will never know what kind of interference you may encounter along the way that can instantly cut the weakened signals. 

Can I transport objects over long distances using a drone?

You can transport objects with a drone, but not over long distances.

Many drones have thrust on the motors that will support additional weight, from accessories to attached objects.

However, adding such weight to the drone will drastically decrease the flight time.

The motors will throttle more and the battery will produce more heat and be discharged at an incredible rate.

That makes transporting objects with a drone over long distances nearly impossible. 

Are long-range drones more expensive than standard drones?

I have seen more expensive drones that do poorly compared to cheaper drones in terms of long-range flights and transmission power.

Although it is more common to see expensive drones excel at flying long-range than cheaper ones, it’s always important to find a balance and focus on drones that will offer these elements.

I’d recommend a drone that’s great at one thing (in this case, flying long-range) than one that’s good at many things.

Of course, there are budget drones capable of long-range flights. For instance, the DJI Mini 2 SE has an older air unit but can still fly long-range without issues.

Can you modify a drone to make it long-range?

You can modify custom FPV drones, changing parts from the video transmission module to the radio receiver.

However, in general, it’s more complicated to make a drone fly longer distances by just switching some parts.

The ground station, a.k.a. you, the pilot, plays a very important role in operating long-range drones.

For instance, a reasonable engineer can craft and place a specific and unique antenna on a van for both transmitting data and receiving a live feed that may have a massive impact on how far a drone can fly.

Are suitable propellers essential to fly your drone long-range?

Some propellers are made to create more thrust and ultimately increase the drone’s speed while maintaining a good battery balance.

Other propellers could do the opposite. 

This is the risk of buying custom propellers. Still, some manufacturers (depending on your drone) may create propellers that can extend the flight time and speed of a drone, ultimately contributing to how far it can fly.

If you’re unsure whether you should invest in long-range propellers, I’d say it’s better to fly your drone with the standard props. 

Does the takeoff altitude matter when flying your drone long-range?

When you attempt to take off and fly long-range at higher altitudes, remember that the atmospheric pressure is decreased (depending on your altitude above sea level), which will directly impact the performance of the drone.

Your drone will attempt to use more thrust to offer you the same flight performance as on sea level. This will ultimately drain the juice quicker from the drone battery and impact your flight distance.

Some drones will struggle to take off at 3,000 meters of altitude above sea level, while others do just fine at 6,000 meters.

If you intend to fly your drone up in the mountains, choose a long-range drone based on the ceiling level and wind speed resistance.

If you want to fly a drone long-range, is it better to fly with or against the wind?

None of the above, ideally! If you fly with the wind, you will easily get farther with less battery, but when you need to return home, you will face the same winds that took your drone far away.

The same happens if you intend to fly against the wind. The drone will drain more battery to reach a specific distance, although getting back home MAY be easier. 

Also, remember that wind direction and speed can change and may have a massive impact on your long-range flight.

Can a drone get out of range only two miles away?

In FCC areas in the US, you will have a better transmission signal than in Europe, Japan, and China. This should be the first factor to consider.

Afterward, where are you flying the drone? And what type of drone do you have? 

Let’s look at a few scenarios, shall we? 

  • A DJI Mini 2 SE in urban or suburban areas in a European city may never reach two miles, and the signal can be interrupted even less than a mile away. In this case, your drone doesn’t fly that far.
  • The DJI Mini 3 Pro in the Alps should reach two miles and beyond if there is no interference.
  • The DJI Mavic 3 Pro in US suburban areas with low interference or places with no interference should always be able to reach this range.

Therefore, it all depends on the circumstances, from signal interference to battery power, drone transmission power, the video module, the country you fly your drone, and many other factors. 

Please remember that a drone two miles out is already out of the visible line of sight, which can be against drone laws in some countries and territories without special licenses and requirements.

» MORE: Do Trees Block Drone Signals?

What factors affect a drone’s range and signal strength?

  • Where you fly the drone: If you use your drone in urban or suburban areas, Wi-Fi and cell towers will have a massive impact on the drone’s ability to fly far.

    Interference can limit a drone capable of flying six miles or more to less than a mile.
  • Obstacles between you and the drone: If you’re at the edge of a forest, near a house, or in any other place where the visual line of sight with the drone is interrupted by obstacles, this will drastically decrease the drone’s signal.

    The video and radio signal of a drone doesn’t have good penetration through objects and forests.
  • Aerodynamics: This doesn’t impact the drone’s signal range but how far it can fly. Good drone aerodynamics may allow for smoother long-range flights, better wind resistance, and overall increased battery life, as the drone will not create as much air friction.
  • How many antennas and their placement: Drones generally come with two to four antennas, but it is not a rule of thumb. More antennas on a drone and their placement can impact the drone signal.

    Also, how you keep your remote controller antennas can influence how far your drone can fly based on the signal.

    Ensure that antennas are unfolded and facing the drone flight direction for the best signal.
  • The max flight time of the drone: This doesn’t affect the transmission range but will definitely impact how far you can fly the drone, considering that you will also have to return it.

    Custom batteries can be used only with custom FPV drones, but you always need to find a balance between capacity and weight in good proportion with the motor powers and discharge rate (C-rate) to maximize the drone flight time.
  • Custom antennas on RC or FPV goggles: We mentioned range extenders, but in many cases, you may be able to change either your RC or your FPV goggle antennas.

    Omnidirectional ones tend to do worse than focusing the signal in a single direction.

    The power should be the same, but how you redirect the transmission signal may have an impact on how far you can get a reasonable transmission with the drone, whether flying FPV or standard GPS drones.
  • How you face the drone when flying long-range: Some drones have antennas on the frontal arms, some on the back arms, while others may have either four antennas or internal ones.

    When flying long-range, the antennas should face you by design for the best link.

    Flying on the side while attempting to capture a specific scene at long-range may put the drone in the way of antenna transmission, which can impact the signal strength.
  • The drone’s internal parts: This is a common issue: cheaper drones tend to have more affordable internal components (or older ones), from the video transmitter, processing power, battery, etc.

    That’s why it’s good to research the drone you want to acquire for long-range flights and ensure it’s decent for the price.
  • Whether someone else is flying a drone near you: In many scenarios, another drone flying near you should not have a massive impact on drone transmission, but in areas where there are more drone pilots (e.g., drone events), many drones can impact another one’s signal strength and create interference in the area.

    A drone has many more times the power of a Wi-Fi router regarding transmission capacity and distance.
  • Your own positioning: Where you are can also be a contributing factor. Without a proper and continuous visual line of sight to the drone, you may struggle to acquire long-range signals.

    Position yourself on the highest point in the area you want to take off (e.g., a cliff) for the best signal you can get.