One of the most common questions when talking to folks is inevitably, “How high does that thing go?” The truth is, we don’t know personally. The FAA regulates all small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) operations be conducted below 400 feet above ground level (AGL). Except that one time, when I didn’t realize the telemetry was outputting measurements in metric units, we have not tested the vertical limits of our drones.
Frankly, there is little gained from flying most unmanned aerial systems (drones) as they often have wide angle cameras which do not show much detail above 400 feet. However, flying above the maximum altitude has serious implications on safety.
Manned aircraft are generally limited to fly above 500 feet AGL. This creates a natural separation of manned and unmanned aircraft in most areas. Airplanes of approach to land will descend below 500 feet and medical helicopters frequently operate below 500 feet above the ground. These aircraft are traveling at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, which is too fast to react and avoid a small drone that may be nearly invisible to the pilots who are not expecting a drone to be in their airspace.
In 2016, both Reading Regional and Lehigh Valley International Airport’s air traffic controllers received numerous reports of drones spotted in the Lehigh Valley at altitudes up to 3,500 feet. Is this even possible? Absolutely. A video online shows a quadcopter climbing to 6,200 feet in about four and a half minutes. What’s more important is that it took the drone twice as long to descend back to the ground.
People who push the vertical limits of their drones, the fast climbing rates are inspiring and impressive. However, with such slow descent rates, drone pilots who might try to evade other aircraft, may not be able to get out of the way fast enough.
Not only is this unnecessary, but it is reckless and can put lives in danger. A quadcopter or hexacopter can completely destroy an engine of a turbine jet or turbine helicopter if it is ingested while in flight.
For those who are flying commercially or just like to tool around at a park or your back yard, enjoy your flying, but do it within the limits of the regulations. For those that see us flying around and you ask how high we can go, now you know the reason we say 400 feet.
If you have a question for the Drone Guys, send us a message and we might feature your question on the next article.