How high can I fly my drone legally? FAA 400 feet altitude limit for drones.

One of the most commonly asked questions among drone pilots is, “How high can I fly my drone?” In this article, we will explain the drone regulations as outlined by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that determine how high you can legally fly your unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone.

Generally speaking the maximum altitude limit for drones is set at 400 feet above-ground-level or AGL for both recreational and commercial drone pilots.

This rule is so widely known that we oftentimes forget about the details and exceptions. Are the drone regulations as set by the FAA the same for professional drone pilots and hobbyist drone flyers? Is it possible to legally fly over the 400-foot maximum altitude limit? And, where does the 400-foot limit come from?

So, how high can I fly my drone?

Well, that depends, the FAA makes a distinction between recreational and professional drone pilots.

Hobbyists or recreational drone pilots are required to follow the Exception for Limited Operation of Unmanned Aircraft (USC 44809), which includes following the FAA-recognized Community Based Organization (CBO) safety guidelines.

Professional or Commercial drone pilots need to follow the Part 107 rules that were first introduced by the FAA in 2016.

Recreational drone pilots are limited to a maximum altitude of 400 feet AGL

Recreational drone pilots are limited to a maximum altitude of 400 feet AGL (above-ground-level) in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace.

They are also limited to 400 feet AGL in Class B, C, D, and E (controlled) airspace but only with pre-authorization through Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), or the FAA’s DroneZone.

In the vast majority of controlled airspace, the altitude limit is even lower than 400 feet. In these situations, a hobbyist drone pilot is required to fly below the maximum altitude restriction as specified by the grid numbers.

Recreational drone pilots are not allowed to fly 400 feet over a structure. Nor does the FAA offer a waiver process for hobbyists to fly above 400 feet AGL or higher than what the grid numbers allow for in controlled airspace.

Commercial drone pilots are limit to 400 feet AGL in almost all cases

If you are a commercial drone pilot or a professional drone operator, you are required to follow the drone regulations as set forth in 14 CFR Part 107 Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

According to Section 107.51 “Operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft”, Certified Remote Pilots are required to operate within certain limits that include visibility, speed, and altitude.

Part 107 Certified Remote Pilots cannot fly their drone or small unmanned aircraft higher than 400 feet above ground level, unless the small unmanned aircraft, (1) is flown within a 400-foot radius of a structure; and (2) does not fly higher than 400 feet above the structure’s immediate uppermost limit.

The operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft allow Certified Remote Pilots to fly higher than 400 feet AGL if the drone is flown in close proximity to a structure.

The FAA considers structures to be man-made obstacles. The uppermost limit of a structure would be the tallest part of said man-made obstacle, which could be the antenna on top of a high-rise building.

How High Can I Fly My Drone Legally? About The 400 Feet Altitude Limit
flying well below 400 feet AGL in the State of .

Controlled versus uncontrolled airspace

The rules and drone regulations as set forth by the FAA apply to the entire National Airspace System.

While the FAA makes a distinction between controlled and uncontrolled airspace, there is no such thing as ‘unregulated’ airspace.

Both commercial and recreational drone pilots need to be aware of the differences between controlled and uncontrolled airspace.

Controlled airspace can be found around many airports where air traffic controllers are actively monitoring and directing all the air traffic. Uncontrolled airspace means airspace in which there are no air traffic controllers directing traffic in the sky.

Let’s take a closer look at how the limit is set to help us better understand how the rules should be interpreted.

Airspace Guidance For Drone Pilots As Explained By The Faa.
Airspace guidance for drone pilots as explained by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Image courtesy of the FAA.

Why is the maximum altitude limit set at 400 feet?

Apart from the controlled airspace near airports and landing strips, manned aircraft usually operate above 500 feet AGL.

By limiting drones to a maximum altitude of 400 feet, the FAA created a buffer zone of 100 feet to avoid any close encounters between manned and unmanned aircraft.

Keep in mind that in rural areas or over water, the 500-foot minimum altitude does not apply to manned aircraft. And, for helicopters, there is no minimum.

Over the years, there have been a number of drone incidents and drone sightings that have fueled the fear of drones among manned aviation pilots, lawmakers, and the general public. In this light, it is important to point out that drones have not been responsible for a single fatality yet, eventhough the unmanned aircraft drastically outnumber manned aircraft both in actual numbers and flight hours.

Both Part 107 Certified Remote Pilots and recreational drone pilots are required by the FAA to give way to and to not interfere with manned aircraft at all times.

Limits to flying your drone 400 feet over structures

In controlled airspace, there are limits to how high you can fly your drones over structures. You cannot simply add 400 feet to the structure’s uppermost limit.

When you apply for your authorization from the FAA as a Part 107 Certified Remote Pilot, you will receive the following statement as part of your authorization:

“Altitude limits are absolute values above ground level which shall not be added to the height of any structures.”

This means that you cannot fly higher than the altitude limit you have been approved for, no matter if structures are present. So, when you are flying in Class B, C, D, or E2, you cannot simply add 400 feet to the uppermost limit of a structure nearby.

Note, even when you are flying 400 feet over a structure in uncontrolled airspace, you still have to stay clear of any controlled (Class B, C, or D) airspace that might be nearby.

The Pilot Institute provides the follwing example, “if you are trying to inspect a structure that is 1500 feet tall, but a layer of Class B airspace starts at 1200 feet AGL, you can only fly near this structure up to to 1199 feet AGL.”

How High Can I Fly My Drone Legally? About The 400 Feet Altitude Limit
A flying near a structure. Photo courtesy of dronemaker DJI.

400 feet above-ground-level or AGL

Manned aircraft should fly at a minimum altitude of 500 feet above-ground-level. When the ground level rises because of a structure, manned aircraft are required to adjust their cruising altitude accordingly. By doing so, the 100-foot buffer zone between manned and unmanned aircraft should stay intact, even if you are flying your drone over a 1,000-foot tall structure or building.

Unlike an absolute reference point such as above sea level, the 400 feet above ground level can be at a different altitude based on the specific situation.

Does the FAA waive the 400 feet AGL restriction?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can waive the 400 feet AGL restriction for Part 107 Certified Remote Pilots (not for recreational pilots).

To obtain such a waiver from the FAA, you will need to submit a request through the agency’s DroneZone portal and provide a detailed explanation of your planned drone operation and what you will do to guarantee a safe drone flight.

In a written proposal, you will need to explain and identify all the risks involved in your drone operation and what risk mitigation measures you have put in place.

The waiver approval process can take considerable time and the FAA recommends at least a 90-day lead time.

There have been few approved waiver applications for drone flights over 400 feet AGL.

The FAA follows very strict safety precautions from Part 107 Certified Remote Pilots, including records for pre-inspection checks and detailed flight logs.

Furthermore, the FAA may require the commercial drone operator to issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) two days ahead of the planned drone flight. The agency will broadcast the NOTAM to all airmen in the area to allow them to adjust their flights.

How High Can I Fly My Drone Legally? About The 400 Feet Altitude Limit
How High Can I Fly My Drone Legally? Faa 400 Feet Altitude Limit For Drones. 1

How does your drone measure 400 feet AGL?

While most modern drones are outfitted with a GPS receiver and can establish their location, GPS coordinates are not a reliable measure for altitude.

Therefore, many drones include a barometer that measures the air pressure and change in atmospheric pressure to determine the altitude at which the aircraft flies.

The drone determines its zero altitude point at the time of take-off. At all times the Remote Pilot needs to be very aware of his or her surroundings.

For instance, if you take off from a mountainside, you can exceed 400 feet of elevation measured from your take-off location by following the terrain uphill with your drone while staying within 400 feet AGL. Likewise, you can fly at a negative altitude compared to your take-off by flying your drone downhill.

How high can drones fly legally?

You may ask yourself if drones are physically able to fly higher than 400 feet in elevation. Yes, most drones can fly considerably higher than 400 feet above ground or sea level.

As you go up in elevation, the air density reduces, which means that at very high elevations, the maximum rotation speed of the propellers might not create enough lift to keep the drone airborne.

For instance, the drones that have been flown in the Himalayan mountains were modified to spin their props faster in order to cope with the less dense air at such high altitudes.

Most drones come with built-in settings that will not allow you to fly higher than 400 feet AGL, or they will issue a warning when you attempt to do so.

How High Can I Fly My Drone Legally? About The 400 Feet Altitude Limit

So, how high can I fly my drone? Conclusion

Recreational drone pilots can not fly over 400 feet AGL, and they might in many cases be required to fly even at lower altitudes.

Part 107 Certified Remote Pilots can only fly over 400 feet AGL when flying near a structure or if they were able to receive a waiver from the FAA/

Whether you are a Part 107 Certified Remote Pilot or a recreational pilot, be sure that you know and follow the drone regulations as set out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Always fly in a safe and responsible manner. And, at all times, give way to manned aircraft.

Be sure to use the B4UFLY app from the FAA to see if you can safely fly your drone.

Drones still have an almost impeccable safety record flying in the national airspace, and all the people we know in the want to keep it that way.

So be sure to have fun with your drones and enjoy the flight experience but do so in a safe and responsible manner.

Part 107 Certified Remote Pilot Flying A Drone Well Below 400 Feet Agl.
How High Can I Fly My Drone Legally? Faa 400 Feet Altitude Limit For Drones. 2

We hope that this article, “How high can I fly my drone?”, helped you to determine how high you can fly your unmanned aircraft. Feel free to share this article with other drone pilots you know. And, let us know your feedback and thoughts in the comments below.

Get your Part 107 Certificate

Pass the test and take to the skies with the Pilot Institute. We have helped thousands of people become airplane and commercial drone pilots. Our courses are designed by industry experts to help you pass FAA tests and achieve your dreams.

Pilot Institute Dronexl

FTC: DroneXL.co uses affiliate links that generate income.* We do not sell, share, rent out or spam your email, ever. Our email goes out on weekdays around 5:30 p.m.

Stay in touch!

If you’d like to stay up to date with all the latest drone news, scoops, rumors, and reviews follow us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, or… Subscribe to our email.*

Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

Articles: 1857

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.