Before we discuss how high can drones fly legally, we need to take into consideration the various types of drones and their purpose. Most people asking this question are probably referring to recreational drones, but to be thorough, let’s take a look at the other types of drones and how they are used.
The MQ-1 Predator was designed, and built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and was used primarily for recon missions by the US Air Force and the CIA. It’s payload consisted of cameras and other sensors that allowed the US to fly it by remote control called a remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA. The Predator is described as a Tier II” MALE UAS, or Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aircraft System and could fly up to 460 miles to it’s target and spy for 14 hours before returning to base.
The Predator was modified to carry, and launch, 2 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, as well as other types of munitions, and entered the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1995 and later joined other NATO conflicts in 1999, 2001 and 2014.
To answer the question, this Medium Altitude unmanned aircraft could fly up to 25,000 feet for up to 40 hours.
Since the success of the MQ-1 Predator, upgrades and modifications have been made to produce other types of unmanned drones with increased payloads and efficiencies.
Drones are used in the Agricultural business to survey crops, locate tiles, report crop damage as well as many other uses. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) considers this to be commercial application of drones and has implemented rules and regulations to govern their use.
Drones used in agriculture cannot weigh more that 55 pounds and must be registered with the FAA. Drone pilots must also obtain, and maintain a remote pilots license to fly drones commercially.
Agricultural drones cannot fly over 400 feet in altitude, cannot carry hazardous materials, can only fly in daytime, or twilight hours (30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset), Certain classes of drones must have permission to fly near or around airports and must get permission from Air Traffic control to fly.
Other Commercial Uses for Drones
Drones are gaining popularity in many other commercial applications. Marketing is beginning to become more interested in drones due to the ability to take high resolution still photos and movies. Firefighting is another commercial use that is becoming more popular as well as wildlife monitoring and exploration and disaster relief, just to name a few. All of these applications, however, must maintain the 400 feet maximum altitude rule.
It’s been rumored, and many have entertained the idea, of using drones for product delivery. Some major companies like Amazon, Walmart Ups and DHL, have been talking about using drones for product delivery for years now, but have been running into problems with the FAA rules and regulations to do so. Amazon’s famous delivery that was touted all over the internet and social networks actually happened in another country and only flew several hundred yards to deliver a package next door, which was really cool, but not applicable to the rules here in the United States. Do I think drones will be used for product delivery anytime soon? I’m sorry, but everything I’ve researched on the subject inclines me to say no. I do believe it will ultimately happen. After all, there are a lot of benefits to drone delivery, from getting around quickly to accessing difficult-to-reach places, I just don’t see it happening in the near future.
Why 400 Feet?
The reason the FAA established the 400 foot altitude maximum is because manned aircraft are not permitted to fly lower than 500 feet, the rules were established to avoid the possibility of colliding with an airplane or helicopter, which could cause serious injury. The reason for the rules about not flying drones near or around airports is because, due to takeoff’s and landing’s, manned aircraft have to fly below the 500 foot ceiling until they reach, and maintain, an altitude of more than 500 feet during the flight.
Most of you, I would imagine, are wondering what category hobbyist, or recreational, drones fall into in the maximum altitude rules. Recreational drones follow the same 400 foot maximum altitude rule that most other drones follow, however, to truly understand how high drones can fly legally you have to understand where the rules begin.
The 400 foot maximum altitude rule stipulates that altitude limit begins from ground level. In other words, 400 feet above ground. So, if you are standing on top of a 5-story building with each story being approximately 10 feet per story, then you have to include those 5 stories, or 50 feet, in your 400 foot maximum altitude limit. In essence, In this scenario, it would mean that, if your drone is equipped with an altimeter, you can only fly it to 350 feet in altitude, since the drones altimeter starts at zero on takeoff. Taking this into consideration, a mountain could eat up your entire 400 feet maximum altitude and a ravine, or a cavern could give you extra room to fly.
Know The Rules
It’s always a good idea to check out the FAA guidelines when piloting a drone. Not knowing the rules can lead to trouble. In general, keep your drone in line of sight and stay well below 400 feet of the ground and you can have a lot of fun with your flying experience. The 400-foot maximum altitude for unmanned aircraft and 500 foot minimum altitude for manned aircraft give s you a 100 foot cushion, but don’t take any risks breaking the rules, they are here to protect you, and others, from harm and potential legal issues. As always, I hope this post helped you understand the altitude limits for drones.
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I’m always here to help answer any questions you have.