What Happens If You Fly A Drone Above 400 Feet?


In October 2017, a drone collided with a Beech King Air 100 with 6 passengers and 2 crew onboard.

This, along with many other incidents reported all over the world where drones either collided or had near-misses with aircraft, gave proof of the need for altitude regulations to be put in place and enforced. 

So, what happens if you fly a drone above 400 feet?

Besides risking crashing into aircraft, if you fly a drone above 400 feet, the Federal Aviation Authority can fine, suspend, or revoke your certificate. Additionally, you risk losing sight of your drone.

This article looks at what happens if you fly your drone above 400 feet. Additionally, you’ll learn more about the penalties that come with breaking the FAA 400-foot rule.

FAA Part 107 Rules

FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Part 107 rules are a set of regulations that govern the general operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, in the United States.

The rules are designed to ensure drones are used safely without posing a danger to the pilot or to the people or property the drones fly over.

The Law requires everyone flying under part 107 to register their drones with the Federal Aviation Administration(FAA). 

According to the FAA, the operating requirements for drones include:

  • Avoiding human-crewed aircraft
  • Don’t operate carelessly or recklessly
  • Keep the drone within sight (unaided sign)
  • Operate one drone at a time
  • Don’t fly over people unless they’re part of the operation
  • Don’t operate from a moving vehicle unless its a sparsely populated area
  • Fly during daylight (30 minutes before or after official sunrise and sunset, respectively)
  • Maintain the maximum drone speed of 100mph

In addition to the above requirements, 400 feet is the drone altitude limit the FAA has in place. However, the drone can go higher to avoid structures, but it must remain within the limit.

A representation of the 400ft altitude rule

Even so, FAA published a rule, Operations Over People, under the federal register in April 2021.

The rule allows drone pilots to fly at night and over people. The rule also allows operators to fly over moving vehicles.

But to forego other requirements, you must apply for a waiver.

For example, if you want to fly over 400 feet above ground level, you must apply for a waiver of 107.51-operating limitations for small UAS. 

What happens if you fly a drone above 400 feet?

You are breaking the law when you fly a drone above 400 feet.

Whether hobbyist or professional, every drone pilot must follow the FAA 400-foot rule. Above 400 feet, drones become a serious hazard to other aircraft.

When you fly above 400 feet without a waiver, the enforcement division of the FAA will take legal enforcement action.

The non-compliance enforcement involves informal procedures and settlements, certificate actions, and civil penalty actions.

  • Informal procedures and settlements are often the first steps of enforcement. This stage aims to give the violator a chance to justify their actions. Although not habitually, this stage often settles the whole litigation process. The FAA may settle on the violator paying a lower civil penalty, or at times, charges are dropped. 
  • Certificate actions: The FAA enforcement division may suspend or revoke the certificate they previously issued to you. The enforcement division can suspend the certificate for days or indefinitely. However, the violator can appeal to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
  • Civil Penalty: The authority has the power to issue a civil penalty amounting to $400,000. However, on average, the civil penalty ranges between $1000 and $28000, depending on the degree of the mistake. Similarly, the violator may appeal a civil penalty to the department of transport or the National Transport Safety Board.

Can you fly a drone above 400 feet?

You are not allowed to fly your drone above 400 feet.

Nonetheless, there are some exceptions to this rule. If you are flying your drone for commercial purposes, you may be able to get a waiver from the FAA that allows you to fly higher than 400 feet.

Additionally, flying above 400 feet depends on your drone and the configurations you’ve set in place. 

So how high can you fly a drone? Some drones can be set to fly at heights above 400 feet.

However, others stop when they reach an altitude of 400 feet. Check your drone’s documentation to see what the maximum flying height is.

The DJI Mavic 2, for example, has a maximum flight altitude of 500 meters.

The DJI Mavic 2 Pro

However, you can set it to notify you at 400 feet or even stop.

Drones have varying maximum altitude levels; most can be customized to exceed 400 feet. Nevertheless, they will prompt you to acknowledge the liability. 

What are the penalties for flying above 400 feet?

The penalty for flying a drone over 400 feet is either a civil penalty, certificate action, or any informal procedure.

The Federal Aviation Administration can issue a civil penalty of up to $400,000. However, the FAA issues a penalty between $1,100 and $27,500 for most violations. 

Additionally, the FAA may penalize any violator by revoking or suspending the certificate of anyone who endangers the safety of the National Airspace System. 

What Are The Risks Of Flying Your Drone Too High?

There are dozens of potential dangers when flying a drone above 400 feet, whether as a professional or hobbyist.

A still from a video of a drone crashing into a plane

Below are some of the most common:

  1. Crashing into aircraft: This is perhaps the most serious potential hazard. Usually, human-crewed aircraft such as helicopters have a minimum flight height of 500 feet. Therefore, flying the drone higher could easily pose a serious collision risk. 
  2. Wind: High winds can be a problem for drones, making them harder to control. Flying the drone higher than 400 feet exposes it to strong winds. As a result, your drone could be blown away, potentially causing it to crash or to lose sight of the drone. Most drones’ wind resistance ranges between 5m/s to 20m/s only while strong winds have an MS ranging from 23 m/s (strong gale) to 32 m/s (Hurricane).
  3. Legal issues: You could be fined or arrested for flying higher. In the United States, if caught flying your drone above 400 feet, according to the Federal Aviation Authority, you may face legal issues. So, you could be subjecting yourself to a fine or revocation of your certificate.
  4. Lose Drone Control Signal: One of the most common dangers of flying your drone too high is that you could lose control of the drone. The drone could be too high and out of range, making it difficult to receive the control signal. Moreover, the high altitude can interfere with the drone’s signal.
  5. Colder Temperature: Higher altitudes have low temperatures, so flying your drone that high can expose it to colder temperatures. Low temperatures can cause problems with the battery and the drone itself. Cold temperatures can also cause the battery to lose power and the drone rotor-wings to malfunction due to high humidity.

Are there different rules for professionals vs. casual hobbyist pilots?

No, there aren’t different drone flying rules for professionals and hobbyists. The only difference between professionals and hobbyists is that the former must have a license to operate and can apply for waivers. 

However, both groups need to follow the same rules regarding flying height and they both have to register their drones.

Additionally, other rules and enforcement actions are similar for both groups.

For example, both groups can face the same penalties for flying their drones in restricted airspace. But how high can a drone fly legally?

What is the legal maximum you can fly a drone at?

The legal maximum you can fly a drone at is 400 feet. It is the maximum altitude that the Federal Aviation Administration allows drones to be flown at within the United States. 

Even so, you can fly higher if you have 107.51-operating limitations for a small unmanned aviation system waiver from the FAA.

The waiver is an exemption from the FAA 400-foot rule that restricts you from flying your drone above 400 feet. 

To get a waiver, you must submit a request to the FAA and explain why you need to fly above 400 feet. The FAA will then review your request and decide whether or not to grant you a waiver. 

The Verdict

And there you have it. While you may be tempted to see how your drone would fare at very high altitudes, always pay attention to the regulations.

You should also be aware of the risks you’re exposing yourself, your drone, other aircraft, or individuals in the vicinity to when you fly too high.

As we’ve established, the FAA directs that flying drones above 400 feet is illegal in the United States.

This new regulation, which came into effect in October of 2020, states that any unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flown for professional or recreational purposes must remain within 400 feet of the ground.

Plus, it must be kept within line of sight of the operator. 

The only exception to this rule is if you have obtained an exemption from the FAA.

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DroneSourced is a drone blog covering the latest advances in UAV technology, the best drones you can buy for your budget, and everything else to do with remote-controlled flight. We're a team of drone enthusiasts that want to spread the word about drones!

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