How High Can You Legally Fly A Drone?

Drone flying at outdoor

Drones used to be accessible only to professionals and for commercial applications. Photographers and filmmakers used them to get awesome pictures of landscapes or sets.

However, with many new companies emerging, drones sort of got cheaper and started gaining popularity with the general public.

There is an expected rise of over half a million drones sold this year alone. For that reason, it’s important for the average person to know about rules and regulations for piloting a drone, especially when it comes to air traffic safety and such. So, how high can you legally fly a drone?


Legal Height Limit

Technicians Operating UAV Helicopter in Park

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Drones aren’t toys, even if we use them recreationally. And the FAA has a pretty strict set of rules regarding all UAVs. No matter what drone we have, there is a maximum altitude at which we can fly.

Of course, different countries have different regulations, but the most common height limits are 400ft in the US, and 500ft in the European Union.

But, that isn’t the only limitation, and as with every law, there are quirks and exceptions.

Another thing to be aware of is that the FAA has put in place no-fly zones over certain locations. The most noteworthy, and most obvious, no-fly zones are around airports, a radius of 5 miles around any airport to be exact.

It makes sense, as the FAA doesn’t want any drones interfering with manned aircraft that are either taking off or landing.

However, we aren’t exactly “prohibited” in the true sense of the word. If we want to fly inside a no-fly zone, we should call the airport and ask them whether it’s okay to fly within the 5-mile radius.

The airport personnel will then ask us questions such as:

  • At which altitude will you be flying?
  • How far away from the airport are you?
  • Where exactly are you and where do you plan to fly?
  • What’s your drone registration number?
  • At what time and how long will you be flying?

All these questions are important for the airport personnel to know whether they can ensure safety for all people in their vicinity.

And surely, if we’re polite and provide them with the necessary information, they probably won’t have a problem with us taking some nice shots of the area.

It’s not like drone flights take hours to complete, or take up high altitudes.


Further FAA Regulations for Drone Flights

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle drone in flight

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Just because there is a height limit, doesn’t mean we can just take off and fly wherever and whenever we want. Further FAA regulations for a legal and safe drone flight include:

  • Always maintain a visual line of sight with the drone — That means we shouldn’t fly our drones behind trees, buildings, or any obstacles that will obstruct our view. We should also note that having a camera feed doesn’t count and that there always has to be at least one person maintaining a visual line of sight with the aircraft. That means that we can let a friend keep an eye on the drone while we focus on the camera feed.
  • Never fly over people or vehicles — Similarly to other machines, drones can break. Whether the battery is empty or a propeller broke off, we have to make sure no one gets injured. We’re also not allowed to fly over stadiums, giant public gatherings, etc.
  • Never exceed the 400 ft height limit, so we don’t interfere with any manned air traffic.
  • Don’t fly at night or in bad weather — even though most drones have signaling lights we’re not allowed to fly them at night. Even with lights, we won’t be able to properly see them or determine how far they’re away from us. The final rule allows us to fly 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after the official sunrise and sunset. These times are also called “civil twilight.”

However, and this is important, we must note that these regulations apply only to recreational drone pilots. So, if we’re flying for fun, we’ll be completely fine as long as we follow these rules.


How High Can You Legally Fly a Drone for Commercial Applications? — FAA Part 107

As for commercial drone operations, a rule called “Part 107” is applied. This rule basically implies that all commercial drone pilots must acquire drone piloting licenses.

The rules we already mentioned still apply, with one noteworthy exception:

  • A provision in Part 107 allows drone operators to fly above 400ft if they’re within 400 ft of a tall structure. This provision allows for flight in areas where manned aircraft wouldn’t be able to fly. As a result, it allows drone operators to, for example, performs industrial inspections and for crisis response.


Limits, Software, and Factors That Determine Maximum Height

Almost all software for drones comes with built-in default altitude limitations, most commonly around 400 ft. That software serves many purposes, with keeping us and our drone safe.

Drone software usually starts off in something called “Beginner Mode,” and it limits our drone’s capabilities greatly, but for a good reason.

Drones might look easy to fly, but they’re not, and we have to take time to learn. Seeing as how they’re still expensive, we risk losing our investment if we’re not careful.

Of course, we aren’t talking about those cheap “toy” drones which can’t fly over 120ft; we’re talking about serious drones for serious hobbyists. Seeing as how drones can be very expensive, we don’t want to crash them.

As for the physical height limits, they greatly depend on the model of the drone we’re using. For example, most drones have a 1600 ft or 500m maximum altitude.

However, certain drones like the DJI Phantom 3 have a maximum service ceiling of 19 685 ft, or 6000m. Impressive, right? However, it’s highly unlikely any drone will reach that height. We haven’t taken into account a range of other factors that are crucial for determining the maximum altitude.

The most noteworthy factors we must consider are:

  • The range of the wireless technology we use for controlling the drone — Most drones use the 2,4GHz wireless tech to transmit information, and it has a maximum range from 2,2mi to 3,1mi or 3,5km to 5km. And to achieve such long ranges, we have to make sure there is no interference or visual obstructions in the way.
  • The air temperature and density — Since drones use propellers to achieve lift, the temperature and density of the air are crucial factors. The higher we go, the thinner the air gets. As a result, the propellers generate less lift, and the motor has to struggle more in order to keep the drone up. As for the temperature, we should never fly our drone in freezing temperatures, as it can severely impact battery life.

Man holding drone with camera

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How High Can You Legally Fly A Drone — Conclusion

All of the rules we mentioned exist with the same purpose, to keep ourselves and the people around us safe. If we stick to the regulations, we are sure to have a fun flying time.

We also discussed how no-fly zones and altitude restrictions work, and why they exist. We must note that all of the rules we discussed only apply to recreational drone pilots.

So, how high can you legally fly a drone? If we’re in the US, 400ft, and if we’re in the EU, 500ft. Of course, we should always contact the local authorities to see if their regulations are different.

Another thing worth mentioning is that there are apps from drone manufacturers which provide us with maps of nearby no-fly zones and rules.

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