Even though they’ve been around for several years now, the full potential of drone utilization is increasing daily. One of the key aspects in diversifying the role of drones is expanding the limitations of the crafts autonomy and range. While a majority of drone users who fly for fun or focus on videography purposes will find the range their drone is capable of more than adequate, there are areas where a drone’s extended reach is vital to complete a given task and this is where long range drones come into play.
The range of the quadcopter is often pondered by people who are just getting into the drone hobby. The question: “How far can it go?” is the one asked most often by people just getting into flying their own drones. The usual answer is: “Further than most feel comfortable flying at.” It should be noted that long range flying is not something most users will find joyful, but should be viewed as a technical achievement - much in a way a recreational jogger might attend a marathon to prove to themselves they are capable, but they don’t feel the need to run 30 miles daily.
As far as enjoying the immersive feeling of flight goes, there is not much difference in flying 100 yards from your position and flying a mile away - other than feeling the stress of not actually seeing your drone and relying solely on the narrow angle of video feed and on screen data your drone is sending you. When you spend several hundred dollars on your drone that feeling of stress intensifies. With that in mind, let’s get serious about finding you a long range drone.
Things You Should Consider Before Buying a Long Range Drone
As mentioned previously in the article, flying long distance can be risky and proper awareness and preparations are essential. As with any technology, things can malfunction. Always ask yourself the terrifying “What if?” before taking off. Not only do you risk losing your expensive drone, it will be flying beyond your clear visuals and in case of technical failure, might come plummeting down. Five pounds falling from 400ft equals a big force, and if circumstances are “right”, potentially lethal. So always inspect the area of your flight path prior to flying, avoid hiker lanes, crowds, structures, power lines, and airports!
Another thing to consider is the autonomy of your craft, such as the battery life. If you set a checkpoint far away and then plan on flying back, make sure your battery will last through the flight. Even though this might seem as a piece of “duh” advice, you really should factor in the wind conditions.
Let’s say you’re flying to a predetermined checkpoint in the direction of the wind and your battery shows 70% at arrival. You have to realize the quadcopter will need significantly more power to return in countering winds. When flying with wind-speeds of 10mph in the same direction, achieving 40mph will only take the drone 30mph of power consumption. When flying opposite to the wind’s direction, it will take 50mph to achieve the actual 40mph speed. That’s a pretty significant increase in power consumption for the same given distance.
If it took 30% of your battery capacity to reach a checkpoint flying in the wind’s direction, it will take another 50% to fly back at the same absolute speeds. In the given scenario, your drone would get back to the starting point with 20% of power left remaining - well below the recommended 30%. We all had one of those moments staring at our dead phone; “What?! The battery was at 20% a minute ago and now it’s empty!” The same battery sagging happens with drones - so always try to end your flight with at least 30% battery capacity left and realize that winds at 400ft altitude might not be the same as the ones you’re experiencing on ground level.
Signal strength (radio connection between the controller and the craft) is one of the most important aspects in achieving a long-range flight. Since the radio frequencies the drones use are outside of what us humans can sense, there are many misperceptions in understanding the subject.
Manufacturers will usually state a range your drone is capable of, but this should be viewed with a grain of salt. As with the claimed mileage per gallon by car manufacturers, these are observed only in ideal conditions. A good analogy for understanding the radio connection is soundwaves. Picture your remote as a loudspeaker screaming at your drone, while your drone’s receiver is a microphone picking up the screams of your transmitter.
If the surroundings are quiet your drone will pick up this sound clearly, but if the surroundings are noisy the drone will struggle to clearly distinguish the exact signal you’re sending it.
Unfortunately, drones use the same frequencies as a majority of wireless devices operating in 2.4gHz and 5.8gHz bands, which are occupied by modern modems and routers. So, while you might achieve the range the manufacturer claims in a field far away from the urban areas, it will be impossible to achieve those ranges above an area with thousands of screaming Wi-Fi access points or a large cellphone tower.
For a successful long-range flight, those connections need to work two-way. Your transmitter is sending the flying control commands to the craft while the craft is sending back the video signal to your goggles/phone/tablet. If either of those are interrupted during a long-range flight you will find yourself sweating fast.
“The lower the better…”
The lower the frequency the stronger the signal. If your drone has the option to select the frequency it’s operating on, always go for the lowest one. Sticking with the sound analogy; When a car with loud music passes you by what do you hear the loudest? The deep bass of that song - same principal applies to radio frequencies, lower frequencies have better penetration and a stronger connection at given power. If you’re given an option between 5.8gHz or 2.4gHz, go for the latter if your goal is longer range.
For flying long-range, a good camera with a solid video transmission is crucial. We need to distinguish between the camera’s recording ability and the camera's picture transmission quality.
Many toy drones come with a camera specified as HD, but this does not mean you will get an HD video feed to your FPV screen. When considering the proper camera we have to factor in the purpose we want it to serve. If the drone is meant as a real-time surveillance tool then a good transmission quality is crucial. If, on the other hand, you plan to fly long range to record a large area, you can get away with lower transmission quality.
In short, picking between the two options should be based on whether you need highest quality picture while flying or just need the camera to successfully operate the drone. This difference usually costs a couple hundred dollars, so saving on the camera will allow you to opt for better specs on the drone’s other hardware or additional battery packs.
Another factor when selecting a proper camera is the video latency (the delay in transmission). The camera’s latency is most important when proximity flying i.e. flying near other objects where a fast reaction to avoid an obstacle is needed. Although this is usually not needed for long-range flying (assuming you’re trying to record a large area at high altitudes) consider it if you plan to use your drone in close-quarter flying as well.
The final video quality of the recordings will often depend on the lighting circumstances, the camera’s sensor and the gimbal it’s attached on. This is another price vs. need compromise that you have to calculate based on your own needs and acceptable costs.
If you plan on flying long distances, any additional sensor featured on your drone will be worthwhile. When flying beyond the visual range, you will appreciate any extra data the drone can provide you.
The first time you venture beyond this border, you might feel strange and insecure so the potential flight data imposed on your video feed will counter some of those feelings. It would be considered irresponsible to fly your drone far away without the GPS sensors most serious drones these days come equipped with.
Apart from GPS, today’s drones come with many other sensors such as barometers, visual positioning sensors, airspeed measuring units, and some even with obstacle avoidance systems.
Potential Uses of Long Distance Drones
We are only witnessing the dawn of what drones can do and what their full potential is. With improvements in battery technologies and reliability of the hardware itself, drones will become an everyday sight of the future landscape.
With much fanfare, Amazon announced its Prime Air deliveries. Although we felt this might have been slightly ambitious at the time of announcement, they are making steady progress in developing and patenting drone technology as a viable mean of delivery. This is probably the most exciting area for potential commercial growth of drone usage. Most mid-sized drones with a few tweaks are already capable of carrying small loads (under 1lbs) even though many manufacturers advise against it. We believe it’s not far-fetched to claim drones will take over the deliveries of small to mid-sized packages in the coming years.
One of the first areas where drones were utilized was surveillance. Just like many other innovative technologies, drone surveillance has its origins in military use and eventually made its way to civilian life, where its potential was extended to use in natural disaster control, missing persons searches, traffic control, crowd management, border control, and other situations.
Mapping is the area where drones have already taken over the industry. What was once reserved for expensive helicopter and airplane use, is now mostly done by drones. Used for mapping hard to reach wild areas, waterways with fast water-flows, urban areas and other fast changing environments has become the norm.
Another area with promising future for the practical use of drones is farming. The technology is already making its way in most cases still as experimental, but the potential value of the drone for agricultural purposes is clear. Inspecting the crops, watering, crop dusting, and animal feeding, all of which used to be done by cumbersome tractor towed machinery could be made cheaper, faster, and less invasive to the environment by the use of drones.
Distance Restrictions (USA)
The new FAA drone regulation sets two distinct categories for drone flying for casual users and commercial users. The rules on casual user drone flying set limitations in terms of distance and altitude the user is allowed to fly. The altitude limit is at 400 feet and the distance is determined by (LOS), meaning you can only fly your drone to the distance it is still clearly visible to you.
The sanctions for violating these limits include fines up to $250,000 and up to 3 years in prison. Commercial users will have to pass a test set by the FAA, but passing this test will not allow them to fly outside the limits set for casual users. To fly beyond the line of sight, commercial users will have to get a special permit issued directly by the FAA.
Buying a Long Range Drone: Pros and Cons
- Enables further flights
- Extended range is useful even when flying at closer ranges offering stronger signal connection with less interference
- Most drones capable of long range flight are built to higher quality standards
- Extra sensors available
- Software and hardware support
- The complexity of the craft can become overwhelming
Best Long Range Drones on Today's Market
1. DJI Mavic Pro
To say DJI is the Apple of the drone world would be putting it mildly. The features, sensors, software suite, and the overall quality sets DJI products in a class of their own. The DJI Mavic Pro is no exception to this. Packed in a small foldable frame, it is a beast packed with sensors, a big battery, and a proven hardware layout.
The main goal of DJI was to make a drone comparable in specs to the famed Phantom series, but in a lighter and handier form. Mission accomplished. The only setback of the Mavic compared to the Phantom 3 & 4 is a slightly inferior camera.
- DJI product
- DJI GO app
- Range (2 miles+)
- Huge community knowledge base
- 720p live video feed
- Questionable Android compatibility
2. DJI Inspire 2
The DJI Inspire 2 is the most recent reincarnation of the famous Inspire drone that has taken over the professional air videography industry. Equipped with double batteries, the Inspire 2 offers even longer flight times, along with the usual DJI treats in the form of every imaginable sensor out there, the best piloting app, which is complemented by the expected DJI build quality.
If you are enthusiastic about making pro aerial video, this drone is the one that should make you drool. But all of this awe comes with a hefty price tag. The drone (without a camera) will set you back $3000, allowing you to pick between two camera options, the X4S at $600 or the X5S at $1900.
Is it worth it? If you are into making professional looking drone videos then the answer is a resounding yes.
- It’s camera is as good as it gets
- Double remote option, allowing it to be controlled by 2 people (1 controls the craft, the other manipulates the camera)
3. DJI Phantom 4 Pro
The Phantom 4 is the latest version in the lineage of the Phantom models by DJI. Proven time and again, the Phantom 4 shares the successful hardware layout of the previous generations with the addition of extra sensors and flying modes. The most noticeable difference from the previous model is the obstacle avoidance system, which will prevent your drone from hitting an object straight on.
With the LightBridge technology, it sends your display live video feed in 720p quality (HD Ready) from distances up to 2 miles. The Go app gives you several flight modes, point of interest, follow me mode, course lock, and others. As with the other DJI products, the Phantom 4 is pricier than its competition but also gives much more in value. As the world's most popular drone it will also serve as a benchmark to all the other drones which made it on the list.
- Obstacle avoidance system
- Range (2 miles+)
- Build quality
- Huge community knowledge base
- 720p live video feed
- Questionable Android compatibility
4. Autel Robotics X-Star Premium
One of the most serious competitors to the DJI Phantom monopoly is the Autel Robotics X-Star Premium. Less expensive than its main rival the Phantom 4, it offers great value similar to the Phantom in flight performance and the overall characteristics. It comes with a similar app which offers equal flight modes, while the autonomy of the craft is only slightly shorter than that of its more known adversary. Compared to the Phantom it’s a bit twitchier and feels less “locked-in”, but aside from that, it’s an amazing drone worth serious consideration.
- Range (2 miles+)
- Camera (detachable)
- Shorter flying times than with the Phantom 4
5. Yuneec Typhoon H
Yuneec is an established drone manufacturer and their new Typhoon H model brings to the table many functions only seen before on higher priced drones. The sonar object sensory suite, retractable landing gear, and a 360-degree pan 4K camera are goodies rarely found on drones in this price ranges. It shoots amazing quality video, which might be even smoother than those taken by Phantom. There are few areas where the Typhoon H lacks compared to its competition; namely the range (stated at 1mile) and somewhat less sturdy frame.
- Image quality
- 360 deg 4K camera
- Retractable landing gear
- Double remote option
- Range (1 mile)
- Flimsier frame
6. Yuneec Q500 4k Typhoon Quadcopter
Yuneec Q500 4K Typhoon is one of the most user friendly drones on this list. Its size makes it significantly bigger than most drones discussed here (only Inspire 2 is bigger), which makes it easier to spot in the sky when flying long distances. Another fact in favor of the Yuneec compared to the DJI drones, is its built-in live video feed as a part of the crafts transmitter, meaning you won’t need to buy a good tablet to operate it.
The quadcopter is fairly robust and straight forward, thus much friendlier to beginners. It offers a good camera on a great gimbal and shoots very smooth video. The Q500 doesn’t offer as much in terms of flight modes, and its range is significantly shorter than those found on the Mavic, Phantom and the Autel’s X-Star.
- Camera and gimbal
- Great for flying LOS
- Beginner friendly
- Built in video feed
- Range (less than 1 mile)
- Lack of flight modes
- Fewer sensors than competition
7. 3DR Solo Drone
The 3DR Solo made the list as one of the more popular drones out there. Its slightly bigger and heavier than the Phantom, and as a consequence the flight times it can achieve are shorter (between 17-20 minutes) but it is significantly faster than the Phantom. It comes without the camera as it was made to carry around a GoPro camera. It holds its position based on the GPS information, lacking the visual positioning sensor found on the DJI products. Despite its setbacks, it produces a nice smooth video. The range the drone can achieve is stated at 0.8 mile-much shorter than some on this list but with price to match. If you already own a sports cam this might be the right choice for you.
- Shorter flight times
- Absence of visual position sensors
- Shorter range
8. DJI Phantom 3 Standard
A good alternative to the pricier models on the list is the tried and tested Phantom 3 Standard, which served as a basis in developing the Phantom 4. Despite the lack of obstacle avoidance system and the LightBridge, the Phantom 3 Standard offers a competitive range (stated at 1mile). It also features the visual positioning system, DJI Go app-allowing it to fly in different flight modes; Follow me, Point of interest and Course lock. Its capable of shooting HD videos which come out just as smooth as its other DJI “relatives”. Definitely a great bang for the buck.
- Flight times
- Video quality
- Flight modes
- Huge community knowledge base
- Great gimbal
9. Parrot Bebop 2
The Parrot Bebop 2 is the only drone on the list that doesn’t come equipped with a camera gimbal which means all the video stabilization is achieved by the drones flight controller. This results in its inability to pitch up and down, and it makes the footage somewhat less smooth. But not everybody is looking for a Hollywood opening shot quality and would rather need that extra range. Compact and backpack friendly, Bebop 2 is capable of flight times way over 20 minutes and ranges in excess of 2 miles, incorporating GPS assisted flight, follow me mode and way point planning. Quite remarkable for such a small drone at a bargain price.
- Flight times
- Flight modes
- Excellent range
- No 4K video
- No camera gimbal
- Shakier footage
We hope this article helped you uncover some of the mystique surrounding the long range drone and that you will find our list helpful in your decision of acquiring a drone that can reach your desired distance. We love to read your feedback, so share your thoughts in the comment section. Let us know if you think there is a drone out there that would deserve to be on this list and your own experience with long range flying.