How far can drones be controlled? This is a popular question asked by many who are new to piloting UAVs. The answer isn’t as simple as giving a definitive one phrase answer like “x miles”. Really, the short answer would be “it depends”. But that answer is far from useful.
In this post, we shall look at exactly how far, by taking all the different factors into account. This will hopefully help you determine the choices you’ll need to make to get your “range needs” satisfied. We can categorize these factors into two mains – The type of the aircraft itself, its capabilities and the manner in which it is controlled.
The type of drone and its capabilities
To measure the maximum distance a controlled drone can go, we must not limit our thinking to the maximum range. This is because the furthest distance traveled regardless of the transmitter or controller range will be limited by the speed and flight time (battery or fuel life) of the craft.
This is obvious from the basic formula Distance traveled = Speed x Time.
When we talk about the type of drone, one thing to think about is if the craft is with rotors or if is fixed wing. A consumer grade quadcopter (or multirotor) has an average flight time of 15 minutes.
Fixed wing planes on the other hand, running on a gasoline engine or even large batteries (10000 mAh or more) typically have far greater capacities for long range flight than the average consumer grade multirotor. Multirotors simply aren’t aerodynamically suited for long flight times.
Some fixed wing beasts can fly at more than 200 mph and have long flight times giving them a capacity to travel large distances.
Several new technologies are being tested and proposed to extend drone flight times. Hydrogen powered systems are one example. This technology could extend the average multirotor flight time to over 4 hours! And then there are other examples of solar powered drones that have a continuous flight time of over 20 hours! There are also other upcoming proposals.
The first thing that flashes to mind when talking about how far can drones be controlled, is the type and range of the drone control.
Out of the box transmitter/receiver pair you would get with consumer grade drones (running on 2.4 Ghz) can have a maximum range of about 1 mile, depending on the noise and obstacles.
But then again, that would be going out of the line of sight and hence, installing an FPV (first person view) camera system is necessary to achieve control during such distances.
One must be vary however, because in many countries flying beyond line of sight can be heavily fined. Hopefully, new regulations forthcoming in the near future will change this.
You must be now wondering if it is possible to extend control beyond this stock 1 mile range. The answer is – most definitely! How? With modifications.
There are several modifications options for your radio gear for achieving long range FPV flights. The most common way is by replacing stock antennas with high gain antennas that run with more power.
So if your stock antenna has is a 2 dB, you might want to upgrade to a 4 or 5 dB antenna. This will increase your power draw to about double. Say it was 60mW, with this setup, you could be hitting 200mW! This can increase your range anywhere from 30 – 50%.
Another way long ranges are achieved is by using power boosters (example, no affiliation). Such power boosters can boost the output of your transmitter to 2W! With appropriate setup, ranges as far as 30 miles is not unheard of. Do take into account the potential noise output, from using such high power setup.
Yet another way is by using an UHF system like DragonLink. This gives you the flexibility to pick lower frequency radio within the UHF range. (Well below the standard 2.4 GHz to about 400 MHz).
As you may or may not know already, lower frequency radio waves travel longer distances before getting attenuated than their higher frequency counterparts. Lower frequency radio waves also tend to travel through objects better.
Not only this, you get to lower the frequency for your video transmitters and receivers as well without having it interfere with the transmitter radio. This means, longer range for your video signals as well. Be wary though, lower frequency waves like the 400 MHz is littered with interference! You might have to get your hands on a spectrum analyzer to see how much noise output a particular spectrum has.
Apart from modifying your transmitters and receivers, the other to achieving longer distances is by using GPS way points and programmable software instead of relying wholly on the traditional controller. However, this will be going into the realm of autonomous drones.
That’s all folks! Hope this post helped you with your primary question and that it is enough information to begin pondering about the maximum achievable distances with your craft.
We suggest you research thoroughly about any laws in your country that maybe in effect that regulates flying UAVs over long distances.
Remember to have some sort of RTH (Return to home) system in place. You do not want to lose your craft when flying long distances!
If you are new to this whole ordeal, we suggest you scour the internet for aircraft builds and setup other people have already used instead of plunging in on your own. It will require some experimentation and potentially, some failures before you find the right setup for you!
If you have any questions or suggestions, don’t hesitate to contact us through our contact form or drop a comment below!